Check This Out…If You Dare!

Abbie Hoffman was having a bit of fun with the publishing industry's deepest fears when he titled his 1970 work Steal This Book. But maybe Hoffman was on to something. We might be heading toward a time when stealing books is the only way to avoid having your personal reading material fall under the scrutiny of the federal government.

In October 2001 Congress passed the USA Patriot Act as a nearly unanimous response to the vulnerability felt by many Americans after the tragedy of Sept. 11. The Patriot Act is a 132-page patchwork of new proposals and amendments to already existing laws, including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and ostensibly gives law enforcement additional tools and authority to track suspected terrorists.

One little-known aspect of this act may, and perhaps should, affect your reading enjoyment this summer. If you are sitting on the beach reading this, you might want to make a mental list of what you bought (or checked out) to take on vacation. The bad news is, under this act, Attorney General John Ashcroft may already have such a list for you.

The USA Patriot Act has given new authority to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to track down just what you have been reading—or at least buying and checking out. Under the FISA provisions, the FBI can bring a court order gained in secret proceedings (ex parte) requiring a bookstore or library to turn over "business records." And the library or bookstore is forbidden from seeking legal counsel or contacting the individual whose material is being requested.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 2002
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