A national coalition of publishers, authors, librarians, and booksellers yesterday called on Congress to modify the part of the antiterrorist USA Patriot Act that allows the government to secretly inspect Americans' book-buying and -borrowing habits.
The statement is signed by 32 organizations, including the American Booksellers Association, the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers, the American Library Association, PEN American Center, and the giant booksellers Borders and Barnes & Noble. It endorses a bill filed in March by Representative Bernard Sanders, Independent of Vermont, that would exempt bookstore sales records and library borrowing records from some provisions of the act.
In a separate statement supporting the Sanders bill, former US representative Patricia Schroeder, president of the library association, said, ''Section 215 seriously undermines the First Amendment-protected activities of authors and publishers, booksellers and librarians, and indeed anyone who reads.''
''Bookstores are almost universally in favor of this,'' said Wayne A. Drugan Jr., executive director of the New England Booksellers Association, which signed the statement. ''Books contain information to which everybody should have free access, and that access should not be monitored or supervised by the government.''
Under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, passed in October 2001, a secret court can authorize the FBI to inspect or seize bookstore or library records without showing probable cause. Further, the law provides that the bookstore or library is forbidden to disclose that the inspection happened.
The Sanders bill, dubbed the Freedom to Read Act, would still allow inspection but would require closer court supervision.
Resistance to the Patriot Act has been building quietly since it became law. More than 90 cities and towns across the country have passed resolutions against it.
''Libraries are a cornerstone of intellectual freedom, the right to think and explore and read whatever you want to,'' said Krista McLeod, director of the Nevins Memorial Library in Metheun and president of the Massachusetts Library Association, which supports the change. ''The privacy associated with that freedom is key. . . .
People who come in to use the library have lost a lot of the privacy that they expect.'' Barbara Comstock, spokeswoman for the US Justice Department, yesterday said the opposition to the Patriot Act is misplaced. ''All Section 215 says is that when someone who is not an American citizen or is identified as a terrorist comes to a library to use a computer, we can go into the library and see what he is doing on that computer,'' Comstock said. ''The hysteria about this is due to a lack of understanding that a court order is required. There is no interest in a general sense in knowing what people are reading.''
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