In bookstore's stacks, a clash over free speech

In a raid on a suspected drugmaking lab, police found how-to books and an invoice from a local bookstore. All they need to identify a suspect and file charges, they say, are the bookstore's customer purchase receipts.

The bookstore is not interested. The result is a clash over First Amendments rights that is being watched nationwide.

Authorities argue that if this were a hardware store or a gun shop, turning over purchase records wouldn't be an issue. But to Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover bookstore, protecting patrons' rights to read what they want without fear of the government looking over their armchairs is paramount. The outcome will likely set a precedent for bookstores around the country.

"If the bookstore is compelled to reveal to law enforcement who is reading, who is purchasing 'politically incorrect' literature, it can certainly have a chilling effect on free speech rights," says Joel Reidenberg, a law professor at Fordham University in New York.

That such a dispute is arising in the stacks of the Tattered Cover perhaps isn't surprising. The bookstore has always been something of an iconoclast.

Long before Barnes & Noble opened its first superstore, the Tattered Cover was pioneering the warehouse approach to bookselling - with a tweedy feel. It features well-worn armchairs, newspapers from around the world, and enough books to rival any urban library.

Now it's trying to break ground once more - in court.

The case began with a raid on a trailer home in Thornton, Colo., a suburb of Denver. Among the chemicals, glassware, and other paraphernalia, police found two books on drugmaking. An invoice from the Tattered Cover was found in a garbage can, but it had no name on it. Because at least four people lived at the home, police were unable to single out a suspect - which is where the purchase receipt comes in.

"We really feel that we can take the case from probable cause to proof beyond a reasonable doubt," says Lt. Lori Moriarty, commander of the task force. "And we feel that our intrusion is in the public interest of safety."

But Ms. Meskis has steadfastly refused to turn over the store's records. Despite a district court ruling against her last month, she says she will appeal the decision to the Colorado Supreme Court.

"We feel this is a very important issue," says Meskis, a bespectacled woman who speaks in the hushed tones of a librarian. "It's a slippery slope, and we don't feel we can set aside the First Amendment."

The issue of First Amendment rights and bookstores has gained attention in recent years, because of several high-profile cases. In 1998, Kenneth Starr subpoenaed two Washington bookstores in an effort to find out what books Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton may have bought as gifts for one another.

Reports that Kramerbooks had agreed to turn over Ms. Lewinsky's purchase records brought cries of outrage from citizens concerned about privacy rights (though the store later fought the subpoena, and Lewinsky's decision to testify rendered the issue moot.)

Yet an individual's reading materials can be used against them, as was the case with Timothy McVeigh. During his 1997 trial for bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City, prosecutors used witnesses who supplied details from books on bombmaking that were found in Mr. McVeigh's possession.

Civil libertarians are quick to point out, however, that just because a person buys books on a topic does not imply certain actions by that person. "If a male buys a book on domestic violence, we don't want to infer he is a wife beater," says Sue Armstrong, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Colorado chapter.

Legal parameters specifying how libraries should deal with requests for confidential records are already in place in 47 states and the District of Columbia, but bookstores are not protected under the same laws.

Libraries do turn over otherwise confidential patron records, but only when there is proper cause, says Judith Krug, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association in Chicago. Otherwise, she adds: "The American Library Association's position is: It's nobody's business what you read."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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