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Friday, February 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Librarians, booksellers call for change to Patriot Act

Seattle Times staff reporter

Afraid that readers are hesitating before buying or borrowing books such as Noam Chomsky's latest anti-government polemic, librarians and booksellers have joined together to try to remove a section of the USA Patriot Act.

At the Public Library Association's national convention, being held in Seattle this week, they began gathering what they hope will be 1 million signatures calling for repeal of the act's Section 215 — which allows FBI agents to examine a suspected terrorist's book-buying and library records, even if that person is not suspected of committing a crime.

"This is having a chilling effect on book buyers," said Phillip Bevis, who owns Arundel Books in Seattle. Lynne Bradley of the American Library Association, the Public Library Association's parent organization, called the law a dangerous violation of the Constitution's most cherished privacy protections.

Bevis said he has seen his customers' behavior change since the law's passage. They're more likely to pay in cash instead of with a credit card, or order from his offshore Web sites and have books shipped because they're afraid the government is watching them.

Beyond that, Bevis had no evidence to support the assertion that the law has made some people think twice about buying books by authors such as Chomsky, a linguistics professor and prominent political dissident. Indeed, there are four books critical of the Bush administration on The New York Times best-seller list.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice hit back, calling the bibliophiles' arguments "based on myths.

"They'd like to create a terrorist safety zone in the library," said Mark Corallo, director of public affairs for the Justice Department. "We know for a fact that terrorists have used public-library computers for research and to communicate using e-mail. We might want to know where they're sending that information."

The FBI hasn't used its new authority, Corallo said.

Although it passed Congress with almost no opposition after Sept. 11, 2001, the Patriot Act has been criticized by some local governments. The Seattle and the Metropolitan King County councils were among those that passed resolutions objecting to parts of the act.

Section 215 of the law allows the FBI to acquire third-party materials — such as library records, of anyone connected to a terror investigation or thought to be involved in a plot — by getting an order from a federal judge. Librarians aren't allowed to discuss investigations.

In the past, agents needed a judicial subpoena and a show of probable cause of a crime, according to professor Mariano-Florentino Cuellar of Stanford Law School.

Whether the law will stand up in court is open to question, Cuellar said.

"On the one hand, there are a series of restrictions on law enforcement's ability to collect evidence that would run against this. On the other hand, there's an expansive permissiveness for gathering information on counterintelligence and national security. This straddles both," he said.

Civil libertarians fear a slippery slope, Cuellar said, meaning the law could lead to more lenient standards for law enforcement.

Corallo disagreed. "You have to convince a federal judge the investigation is to protect against international terrorism. So the idea that this allows for fishing expeditions is false and absurd."

Investigators have always used records such as phone logs, credit-card receipts and even library borrowing records, he added.

The librarians and booksellers said they are also concerned that the law prohibits them from telling anyone if the FBI comes to them for records.

Some customers and bookstore owners said they haven't felt any direct effect of the law.

John Gizzi, who yesterday was checking out the Chomsky section at Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle, said he believed he had nothing to fear.

Mark Wessel of Wessel and Lieberman Booksellers and Peter Aaron of Elliott Bay said they didn't think the law had any effect on their customers' behavior. They oppose the law on principle, they said.

"There's no way the FBI is going to see my records, law or no law," Aaron said.

J. Patrick Coolican: 206-464-3315 or jcoolican@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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