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Bookstore record seizures { June 22 2003 }

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A. David Schwartz 'Takes Five'
Bookstores balk at record-seizure law
Last Updated: June 22, 2003
A. David Schwartz, president of Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, recently joined a growing number of the nation's booksellers in criticizing an obscure provision of a federal law known as the USA Patriot Act of 2001. The Patriot Act, signed into law in October 2001 in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., granted new terrorism-investigation powers to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Section 215 of the act would compel a bookstore owner to release purchase records while imposing a gag order, prohibiting the business from disclosing to anyone that such information had been taken. That provision of the law "has given American booksellers a growing sense of discomfort and anxiety," Schwartz says in an advertising flier mailed to more than 25,000 customers in the Schwartz Gives Back program, which provides money for certain community organizations. In an opinion column on the front of the flier, Schwartz warns that he could not challenge or prevent federal seizure of records of purchases under the law. One possible remedy, he says, is a bill in Congress that would exempt bookstores from Section 215 unless the government can show cause for a request in court. The "Freedom to Read Protection Act" has 105 House sponsors. Schwartz talked recently with Journal Sentinel reporter Don Behm about the potential impact of Section 215.

Q. Do you support the federal government's efforts to monitor and investigate terrorist activities?

A. Yes. I am absolutely opposed to terrorism. The government has adequate tools to do that.

Q. Why are you opposed to the secret release of customer purchase records?

A. The FBI already has significant subpoena powers to obtain records. There is no need for the government to invade a person's privacy in this way. This is a uniquely un-American tool, and it should be rejected. The books we read are a very private part of our lives. People could stop buying books, and they could be terrified into silence.

Q. How did the Patriot Act change law enforcement procedures?

A. In the past, the government would have to defend their seizure demand in court if it was challenged, and this resulted in the vast majority of those FBI subpoenas being quashed. But this provision changed that, and now I could not challenge a demand. Why should our federal government be allowed to take records secretly without giving a specific reason for doing so?

Q. What book purchase records could be linked to a person?

A. Records of our Schwartz Gives Back community support program are an important marketing tool for us. For Schwartz Gives Back members, we donate 1% of a sale to one of 30 organizations that the customer has designated. In six or seven years, we have given more than $210,000 to community groups. This customer data helps us personalize our services. It is something that we believe we must do to continue to remain a viable small business. We also keep records of credit card purchases and all special orders for books that were not in stock.

Q. Has a law enforcement agency ever sought records from you?

A. In 40 years in business, I've never been asked. In the past, I would have said "no." But this provision of the Patriot Act changed things. Now, I don't have a choice. Since we began to collect data for our Schwartz Gives Back program, we have never given, sold or shared it with anyone outside.

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