Five years ago, an independent bookstore in Denver became the center of a drug investigation, and at the same time, inadvertently became a model for bookstore owners across the country concerned with the Patriot Act.
Police officers walked into the Tattered Cover Book Store and served a search warrant for the records of one of the store's customers, who was suspected of manufacturing methamphetamine, according to the American Bookseller Foundation for Free Expression. Even though the search took place more than a year before the Patriot Act was passed, the case set a precedent for booksellers and others across the country who are fighting some of the surveillance provisions of the anti-terrorism law.
Several businesses, city councils and other governmental institutions across the country have taken stances for and against the act for a variety of reasons. Some of those stances are driven by politics, some by security and others by fear.
"You have to be able to do this without the government looking over your shoulder," said Rich Van Castle, owner of three Bay Books stores in the East Bay. "It is very important. I wouldn't want the government coming in here and saying 'What did he read or did she read?'"
Van Castle is just one of many independent and corporate booksellers across the country who have been fighting one of most controversial measures of the act, Section 215, which gives federal authorities access to customers' book, medical and library records, while establishing a gag order to prevent anyone involved from commenting on the case.
"That to me is a violation of free speech in of itself," Van Castle said.
But to the FBI, which is often painted as the abuser of Patriot Act powers, says the gag order is a matter of both national and personal security. The FBI also contends that bookstore purchases and library records were available to federal authorities long before the Sept. 11-inspired Patriot Act.
"Some of this is just common sense," said Special Agent LaRae Quay with the San Francisco office of the FBI. "It's just one of these things if we are looking at an individual it's best that they not know. (It's) also to protect the individuals that are cleared.
"First of all, if you have a librarian flapping his or her lips that Joe Blow has been looked at, if that's a terrorist, that tips them off. And secondly, if they are innocent, their reputation is smeared."
Critics of Section 215 argue that record searches violate customers' First Amendment rights. The Colorado Supreme Court backed that stance when it ruled in favor of Tattered Cover Book Store, which refused to comply with a subpoena.
The court ruled that the prosecution had not shown enough proof that it needed the customer's buying records to prove his guilt. Reasonable doubt is vital to access records, according to Quay.
"It's not just an agent (who) decides 'I want records and go and seize them'," she said. "We have to be able to articulate any connection with records and an ongoing investigation."
Library records were available for criminal cases before passage of the Patriot Act, but the act gives access to records involving suspected terrorists.
Being able to access library records has been a successful tool in protecting public safety, according to Quay. The FBI was able to track the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, by pulling his library records.
The FBI examined Kaczynski's life and noticed that his manifesto referred to three obscure books that very few people would read. The FBI was tipped by Kaczynski's brother that the books of "interest were checked out from his local library." The FBI obtained a federal grand subpoena and went to the library near where he lived to verify the information.
Still, from small independent bookstores to huge chains such as Borders and Barnes & Noble to public libraries, protecting customers' privacy is a driving force behind taking a public stance against the act.
"It is very important. We believe that it is our customers' right to choose what to read, listen to and buy, and those decisions are private," said Anne Roman with Borders.
Other entities affected
There are other businesses, such as banks, that must provide access to customer records.
Because of the Patriot Act, certain transactions and identities must be reported to the government to help prevent financial crimes involving terrorism, such as identity theft and money laundering.
The act has also affected local governments across the country. Nearly 400 communities in 43 states, representing 62 million people, have taken positions of one sort or another against the Patriot Act.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the American Civil Liberties Union hired five people to help get resolutions against the Patriot Act passed across the country, according to Dalia Hashad, an advocate in for the ACLU's campaign against racial profiling.
The ACLU organizers worked with local leaders in each community to get resolutions passed. But the ACLU did not want its name all over the campaign, so the five people hired to work on the resolutions full-time divided the country into five sections and worked with each local community to get them passed.
The success of the campaign was based on Americans' unwillingness to compromise their civil rights for national security, according to Dorothy M. Ehrlich, the executive director of ACLU Northern California.
"I think people understood giving up civil liberties didn't make them any safer," she said. "There is no evidence that it does and there is a lot to lose. There has truly been a bipartisan concern across the country."