ACLU Offers Legal Advice on Protecting Privacy of Book Purchases

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington is offering free legal advice to booksellers in the state who receive subpoenas or search warrants seeking disclosure of customer purchase records. The ACLU is making the offer in letters sent to booksellers statewide.

The ACLU's action comes in response to the USA PATRIOT Act, which has given federal law enforcement agencies new tools to demand records from booksellers. Passed in 2001, the PATRIOT Act empowers the government to obtain records of a person's book purchases as part of an intelligence investigation, without evidence that he/she is suspected of committing a crime.

"The ACLU believes that the freedom to read necessarily includes the freedom to read privately. Customers cannot freely make decisions to read unpopular or controversial books if they fear that their choice of reading matter will be revealed without their consent to police, lawyers, and judges," said Kathleen Taylor, Executive Director of the ACLU of Washington.

In recent years, there has been an increase in subpoenas to bookstores demanding evidence about customers' reading habits. In one notable incident, Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr demanded that Barnes & Noble and Kramerbooks in Washington, D.C. divulge information regarding all purchases by Monica Lewinsky. Booksellers in Washington state, ranging in size from to the small Arundel Books in Seattle, have received subpoenas to disclose customer records.

In its letter, the ACLU recalled words written by Washington's own Justice William O. Douglas during the McCarthy era: If a customer "can be required to disclose what she read yesterday and what she will read tomorrow, fear will take the place of freedom in the libraries, bookstores, and homes of the land."

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