"Who could deny that privacy is a jewel? It has always been the mark of
privilege, the distinguishing feature of a truly urbane culture. Out of
the cave, the tribal teepee, the pueblo, the community fortress, man
emerged to build himself a house of his own with a shelter in it for
himself and his diversions. Every age has seen it so." Phyllis McGinley
U.S. poet, author.
That includes the books we read and the books we own.
A number of years ago I was on a panel on censorship with Joyce Meskis
who owns and runs the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver. While highly
intelligent and competent, she seemed to be a very unassuming woman.
Beware of quiet women. Today she is standing very tall and strong in a
long fight to protect her bookstore and the privacy of her customers.
The Tattered Cover is a national landmark, one of the few independent
bookstores nationwide which has maintained its independent local
ownership and its name. Book lovers travel from miles around to visit
what one of its admirers, Laurel Lindburg, calls, "Four stories of
books -- Dark, wooden shelves -- Wide, turning stairs -- People buzzing
about -- Like bees looking for pollen -- All searching for a hidden
treasure -- Some new knowledge -- Something to tug at their hearts
--Something to remove the loneliness -- A bustling place yet nooks of
In April Joyce Meskis found five police officers in her office with a
search warrant to look at the purchasing records of one of her
customers. In the course of a raid on a methamphetamine lab in Adams
county, officials found two books containing specific information about
drug manufacture, along with a Tattered Cover envelope and an invoice
number. They want the name of the purchaser to help in their search
for the bad guys. Joyce Meskis says "No." The books are quite legal to
write and to sell.
She wrote later in an open letter to her customers, "In the last few
months I have been confronted by police officers wanting information
about a customer's book purchases, as well as by customers who are upset
with our choice of books or authors. I know a challenge to the First
Amendment when I see one and I am not going to stand aside and let it
happen. This is too important."
She didn't stand aside and eight months later she still has not made
that record available.
The right of privacy is a fragile one. Certainly the law enforcement
agencies must be free to hunt evidence of crime. But at what cost? it
is hard to determine exactly where the line is. Where are the
limits? How much privacy are we willing to give up?
In Arizona the Drug Enforcement Agency subpoenaed Ronin Publishing to
provide the names of all customers in the state who had purchased
"Marijuana Hydroponics." They lost, probably because the subpoena was
too broad. An interesting side note to that is that as of now selected
seriously ill people in Colorado can legally use marijuana, but so far
as I have read, the only legal way to get it is to grow it. Maybe they
should send the Arizona books up here.
The adventures of Monica Lewinsky and her book purchases hit the
headlines a year or so ago. Ken Starr wanted to know what books she had
bought and presumably given the President. Kramerbooks went ballistic
and refused the information.
Sue Armstrong, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union
in Colorado said that, "If the Tattered Cover loses this case, the
message is clear that the government has the right to scrutinize what we
read and infer behavior from that."
Joyce Meskis is asked why she continues this fight. "I worry that all
these forces may interfere with our freedom to read and faster than a
lightening bolt, zap away the soul of our First Amendment, thereby
diminishing our democratic society. If we go away, the next bookstore
will face the same challenges. And so on. Where then, will the ideas,
...any ideas ... live...ideas that any one of us may care about one day
that aren't the popular mainstream?"
Hang in, Joyce.