When Reading Becomes A Crime: The War on Drugs Goes After Books
Richard Glen Boire, JD

Should the purchase of certain books be considered evidence of criminal activity? The DEA thinks so, and so does a Colorado judge who ordered the owners of the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, Colorado to turn over the name and customer information of a person who purchased books containing information on manufacturing illegal drugs. The store is appealing the judge’s order.

The incident grew out of a raid conducted earlier this year by Colorado anti-drug agents. The agents searched a mobile home and discovered what they believe to be a methamphetamine laboratory. Also discovered in the home was an invoice from Tattered Cover bookstore for two books, Advanced Techniques of Clandestine Psychedelic and Amphetamine Manufacture, as well as The Construction and Operation of Clandestine Drug Laboratories.  The invoices did not list the purchaser’s name or address.

Police are demanding that the Tattered Cover bookstore turn over the name and address of the purchaser so that they can link that person to the alleged illegal lab. The case is currently in court after Joyce Meskis, the owner of the Tattered Cover refused the cops’ demand on the grounds that turning over customer information violates the customer’s privacy as well as the First Amendment.

Meskis has a good point. While once upon a time the War on Drugs many have been a war on pills, powders, and “evil” plants, today it is far more than that. It is now, more than ever, a battle over the mind –  a war over what sort of consciousness is approved and what sort is considered criminal. Going after books takes things to yet another surreal level, evoking images out of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where firemen raced around the city burning offensive books.

Are we really ready to make reading certain books evidence of crime?

In the mid-16th century, Pope Paul IV published the Index Librorum Prohibitorum a list of forbidden books enforced by the Roman government. Any person caught reading or keeping a prohibited book committed a “grievous sin” and was punished according to the bishop's discretion. When the Index was (finally) abandoned in 1966, it listed over 4,000 forbidden books, including works by such people as Galileo, Kant, Pascal, Spinoza and John Locke. [1]

Although it is not well-known, the government actually has a history of surveilling the reading habits of Americans. The FBI’s “Library Awareness Program” sought to “recruit librarians as counter intelligence ‘assets’ to monitor suspicious library users and report their reading habits to the FBI.”[2] When the American Library Association (ALA) learned of this, its Intellectual Freedom Committee issued an advisory statement warning that libraries are not “extensions of the long arm of the law or of the gaze of Big Brother…” [3] Another ALA memo chastised the FBI for its efforts to “convert library circulation records into “suspect lists”…” [4] The program was eventually ended, or so the FBI says.

But in the War on Drugs there’s evidently no such thing as a fair fight. The government’s demand that that Tattered Cover turn over the name and address of its customer evidences the fact that anti-drug agents are now employing scorch and burn tactics – to the Constitution – all in a misguided mission to rid the world of mind altering drugs –or should I say nonpharmaceutical drugs, nor those socially approved drugs such as alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and prime-time TV.   By trying to force the Tattered Cover bookstore to reveal its customer information, the government is now signaling that not even the First Amendment is sacrosanct in the War on Drugs.

This is not the first time that the US government has considered reading books evidence of a drug crime. Three years ago, in the summer of 1997, the DEA whipped up a subpoena and served it on Ronin Publishing Company, a company whose extensive catalog includes books about marijuana and other drugs. The subpoena stalked purchasers of a certain book, ordering Ronin to turn over”[t]he names and addresses of any and all residents of the State of Arizona who have purchased or otherwise obtained copies of the book Marijuana Hydroponics: High Tech Water Culture.” To its credit, Ronin Publishing told the government to go to hell. Eventually, the DEA backed down after an Assistant US Attorney conceded that the subpoena was “unduly burdensome.”

The actions against Ronin Publishing in 1997 and against the Tattered Cover bookstore today, are an alarming expose on the Frankentienian monster named the War on Drugs—a monster that is running roughshod over the Constitution and may soon be coming to a book store near you.

Reading books should not be a crime, nor should the books you read be considered evidence of crime. The very purpose of the First Amendment was to protect unpopular speech and expression. The government action against the Tattered Cover bookstore is an attempt to make an end-run around the First Amendment by threatening to investigate people based on the books they purchase. The government is saying “We may not be able to censor books, but we will investigate you if you buy the ones we don’t like.” If this occurred on a topic other than “drugs,” the public would be up in arms and the misbehaving government agency would be placed under investigation. But, given the successful vilification of users of unauthorized drugs (by the government and its partner mass-media), few people rise in protest.

If, as most people believe, government censorship of books belongs in the Dark Ages, going after people based on the books they purchase ought to similarly be regarded as an archaic fascistic attempt to control information. But, given that the government’s War on Drugs is a modern day crusade, it’s really no surprise that the US Government is resorting to similar techniques as previously used by the Catholic Church’s Holy Inquisition.

Just say no to the modern auto da fe.


1. For a fascinating survey of suppressed literature, see the multi-volume set Banned Books, published by Facts on File, which covers literature suppressed on religious, social, sexual, and political grounds.

2. Foerstel, H., Library Surveillance: The FBI’s Library Awareness Program, (1991) p. 2.

3. ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, “ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee Advises Librarians on FBI ‘Library Awareness’ Program,” October 1987, p.3.

4. “Memo to Members,” American Libraries, July-August 1970, p. 658; see also, U.S. Congress, House Committee on the Judiciary, FBI Counterintelligence Visits to Libraries: Hearings before the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights of the Committee on the Judiciary,  100th Cong., 2d sess., June 20 and July 13, 1988 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1989, pp. 77-78.)

Author Richard Glen Boire is the director of the nonprofit Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics in Davis, California.

About the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics  
The Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, law and policy center working in the public interest to protect fundamental civil liberties. The Center seeks to foster cognitive liberty – the basic human right to unrestrained independent thinking, including the right to control one’s own mental processes and to experience the full spectrum of possible thought. Web site: http://www.cognitiveliberty.org

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