Big Brother Is Watching You Read

| February 18, 2002 Issue

G overnment attempts to obtain a Denver bookstore's customer sales records have booksellers and free speech advocates alarmed that First Amendment rights are being trampled in the name of justice, reports Christopher Dreher of Tattered Cover bookstore in the past two years has managed to stave off a warrant that demands they hand over records of one customers' purchases by winning temporary restraining orders. But the case is only one of several that are being characterized as an alarming trend that will have chilling effects on the public's freedom of speech and privacy.

Tattered Cover's messy battle began in March 2000 when the Drug Enforcement Agency, during the raid of a methamphetamine lab, found a Tattered Cover shipping envelope in the suspect's garbage and nearly new books on methamphetamine production. The DEA wanted to strengthen its case by tying the suspects' activities with his book purchases. Tattered Cover's owner, Joyce Meskis, thought the request for the customer's information was a violation of First Amendment rights, and she refused to hand over the records. The case, heard by Colorado's Supreme Court in December, will hand down its decision this spring.

Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, complains that requests for customer information is part of law enforcement's attempt to take the path of least resistance in their investigations. "(The police) left avenues uninvestigated and went to the bookstore because it's more convenient for them," he says. That strategy, however, hasn't proven to be as successful as they may have thought. In the three other cases where customer records have been requested, each bookstore chose to fight it. "They need to respect bookstores for what they are: purveyors of ideas, not a hardware store," Finan says.
--Kate Garsombke
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