Tattered Cover vs. U.S. Gov’t: Denver Bookseller Leads Struggle Against Patriot Act Civil Liberties Violations

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We speak with Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, CO. A full year and a half before the Patriot Act, Meskis was confronted by police who demanded she turn over a patron’s records. Meskis refused and has since become a leading figure in librarians and booksellers’ struggle against civil liberties violations in Section 215 in the Patriot Act. [includes rush transcript]

President Bush signed the Patriot Act into law in the weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks. Since then, 300 local and state governments, representing more than 51 million people, have approved a resolution condemning provisions of the Act as violating basic civil liberties.

Despite this, Bush is now calling on Congress to make all provisions of the Patriot Act permanent.

One of the most controversial provisions, Section 215, grants federal agents the power to secretly demand records from librarians and booksellers about patrons. Librarians and booksellers have arguably been among the most vocal opponents of the Patriot Act staging protests across the country and refusing to comply with federal authorities.

But a full year and a half before the Congress passed the Patriot Act, six police officers arrived at the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, Colorado, armed with a search warrant demanding that the owner Joyce Meskis turn over a patron’s records. She refused explaining this action violated her customer’s First Amendment rights. In 2002, the Colorado Supreme Court agreed with her.

Joyce Meskis has become the leading figure in librarians and booksellers’ struggle against civil liberties violations by the Bush administration.

  • Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, CO. In 2000, she refused to turn over a patron’s sales records to the police, citing the customer’s First Amendment Rights.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Joyce Meskis joins us now, welcome to Democracy Now!

JOYCE MESKIS: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: So why did m you say no? Six police officers come to The Tattered Cover.

JOYCE MESKIS: Because our customer’s privacy would have been violated, and we felt not knowing anything about the case at the time that we were standing on constitutional principles.

AMY GOODMAN: What is it that they wanted to know? What was the case?

JOYCE MESKIS: The first request from them came actually through the D.E.A. The Drug Enforcement Administration with an administrative subpoena. They wanted all the records of our customer, all the transactional records of this particular individual. They specified one in particular it was a mail order shipment that we had made to the customer. When our attorney told them that this was an administrative subpoena, not enforceable, that we would want to litigate it, they would need to get a real subpoena, as it were, they said, well, they didn’t really want to go that route and we thought that was pretty much the end of it. Then, perhaps two, three weeks later, we were faced with a search warrant, which, of course is immediately actionable. The search warrant was somewhat limited from the initial request. They wanted one month’s worth of records, of transactional information on this customer, in addition to the singular book order shipment that was made to the customer.

AMY GOODMAN: And you said no.

JOYCE MESKIS: And we said no.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened?

JOYCE MESKIS: Well, at that point the officers were in my office. It seemed like an interminable amount of time. And they were very much with the mindset that they were going to get this information, and my attorney and I, I was on the phone to him, were very much in the mindset that we needed to see this through in terms of a broader approach through the courts, and we filed subsequently for a temporary restraining order, got it, then litigated it. We wound up in the district court, and the judge in that particular ruling gave each side half a loaf. He said “Officers, no, you were on a fishing expedition with regard to the one month’s worth of information, but Tattered Cover you need to turn over that one piece of information regarding the book’s shipment that was made to the customer.” We took it to The Colorado Supreme Court and to cut to the chase in a six-hour decision, the court said that we were correct in protecting our customer’s rights.

AMY GOODMAN: And so you never had to turn it over?

JOYCE MESKIS: We didn’t. There was an unusual turn of events, however, about a year after the ruling. The suspect in the case had been apprehended, and through his attorney, asked us to confirm the title of the book that was in the package that was sent from The Tattered Cover to the customer. It turned out not to be the book in question that the officers thought it was, however, the suspect was apprehended, convicted and is serving time in terms of what the allegations were in this book.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the book?

JOYCE MESKIS: The book that was actually sent had to do with Japanese characters, calligraphy.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Joyce Meskis , she is owner of The Tattered Cover, which is one of the largest independent book stores in the country with over 100,000 books in your two Denver stores?


AMY GOODMAN: That was before September 11th, before the U.S.A. Patriot Act. Last night I was in Salt Lake City, we were celebrating the independent community radio station KRCL, celebrating 25 years, as well as The Utah Library Association, and Sam Weller’s Zion Bookstore the independent bookstore, as we look at the whole media landscape. But what was your reaction after you had been through all of this, when The U.S.A. Patriot Act passed, and particularly Section 215a that puts you together with librarians, where you personally could be prosecuted if you even tell another librarian or person in the store who works there that The F.B.I. has come to your store?

JOYCE MESKIS: Well, The Patriot Act was passed actually before the final Colorado ruling, and so we were of course, very conscious of the ramifications of The Patriot Act. With regard to what has occurred now, and The Patriot Act on the books right now, we are very concerned as all books sellers and librarians are regarding or customer’s privacy.

AMY GOODMAN: Has the F.B.I. approached Tattered Cover?

JOYCE MESKIS: No. But I guess if it was yes, I couldn’t tell you.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you feel under siege right now? Are you concerned? Do you tell customers that they could be watched?

JOYCE MESKIS: Well, we have in our store petitions for the customers to sign regarding section 215 of The Patriot Act in opposition to that. We want to see it changed, and we feel strongly that there needs to be a swell from the population of readers that we and other librarians and booksellers serve to tell the president, to tell the legislators that this is not part of what it means to be in America.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us. Joyce Meskis and wonder as we deal with this age of censorship, of crackdown, the latest news about Michael Moore, maybe this is in your per-view maybe not. But Michael Moore, The Disney Corporation saying that they will not distribute his film called “Fahrenheit 911.” It owns Miramax. Miramax was producing and distributing the film. And the word is that they’re concerned about, I don’t know if it’s Disney World or Disney Land in Orlando, losing tax breaks if they put out a piece critical of Bush. Your response as these are also publishers as well?

JOYCE MESKIS: Right. These are publishers. I suppose it could be argued on one side that a publisher has a right to publish, distribute materials that they see fit to do. They are not the government. It is not government censorship from that standpoint, however, I also feel that the media, those in publishing, those in bookselling and libraries have a responsibility to the public to create a forum where ideas of all kinds are expressed, and digested, and discussed.

AMY GOODMAN: Joyce Meskis, owner of The Tattered Cover in Denver, Colorado. Thanks very much for joining us.

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