Squad Fumes As Bookshop Shields Reader
Lawrence Donegan, © The Observer,
13 Jan 2002
Prize-Winning US Writers Queue Up To Defend Privacy Of Customer Who
Bought Uncle Fester's Illicit Manual
It never won a Pulitzer or appeared on the New York Times bestseller lists
but a 400-page book about the manufacture of illicit drugs by an author
known as Uncle Fester is at the centre of a legal battle over the privacy
of the US book-buying public. In what has been described as a landmark
for the US book industry, the Tattered Cover bookshop in Denver, Colorado,
has spent 18 months resisting the attempts of both police and courts to
obtain the identity of a customer who purchased Uncle Fester's opus,
Advanced Techniques of Clandestine Drug Laboratories .
Many of the country's most celebrated authors, publishers and booksellers
are supporting the shop, which has argued that handing over the
would be a serious attack on free speech.
'There is a right to privacy in this country and that includes the right
read what we like without government interference,' says award-winning
novelist Michael Chabon. 'If the police get what they are after in this
case, what is to stop them demanding to know all sorts of things - like
has been reading books about any subject the authorities deem to be
'dangerous', such as religious beliefs that don't fit into the so-called
Chabon, who won the Pulitzer last year for his novel The Amazing
of Kavalier and Clay, is one of several leading writers, including David
Eggers, Dorothy Allison and the children's book author Daniel Handler, who
have giving financial support to the Tattered Cover's legal defence fund,
along with the American Booksellers' Foundation.
'People shop in bookstores on the understanding that their choices are
confidential,' says Chris Finan, president of the ABF's Foundation for
Expression. 'There are a lot of books about subjects - mental health,
sexual dysfunction - that we do not want our wives or husbands to know
we've been reading about. If people know the police can get that kind of
information they will not shop for those books.'
The case centres on a raid by drug enforcement officers at a trailer park
near Denver in March last year. The Uncle Fester book and another called
Advanced Techniques of Clandestine Psychedelic Drug Laboratories were
inside a trailer owned by a man suspected of operating a methamphetamine
lab. An envelope discovered in his rubbish bin contained an invoice from
the Tattered Cover.
The following day four plainclothes officers arrived at the shop with a
search warrant, demanding to know if the books were bought there and, if
so, by whom. The shop's owner, Joyce Meskis, refused to provide the
information. 'It is not our job to do the police's work for them,' she
Denver police then asked that it enforce the subpoena. At a subsequent
hearing, lawyers for the bookshop argued the police had failed to
other witnesses who could have helped convict the suspect. Details of a
customer's purchasing record were not sufficiently important to the
criminal case to justify the 'chilling effect' that releasing such
information would have on the right to free speech enshrined in the First
Amendment, they said.
However, the court upheld the police request - a decision which has been
challenged by the shop's owners in the State's Supreme Court. A ruling on
the appeal is expected in the next few weeks.
The case has echoes of that brought by Kenneth Starr against two bookshops
in Washington DC during his investigation into the Monica Lewinsky
'scandal'. When it emerged that Lewinsky - who was said to have given
President Clinton several books as presents - was a regular customer at
shops, Starr demanded to see her purchase records. The shops' owners
resisted his request, but the case never reached court after Lewinsky
struck a deal with the former Independent Counsel.
Finan said yesterday there was a growing problem with authorities seeking
private information from bookshops. 'I'm afraid this may be a bad idea
whose time has come, and the chilling effect on publishing could be very
serious indeed. In the Lewinsky case, a false rumour went around that the
bookshops were going to comply with Starr's request. The effect of that
they saw a big fall-off in business. People trust bookstores to protect
them. If they don't have that trust, they will not shop there.'
The Tattered Cover, spread over four floors in downtown Denver, is a
required stop on the book tour schedule for every bestselling author and
has a reputation for stocking radical, independently published books that
have little chance of finding shelf space in chain stores such as Borders
and Barnes and Noble.
Meskis said she had been heartened by the support she and her staff had
received from writers, publishers and the public. More than 400 people
turned up at a fund-raising event at a San Francisco bookshop last night.
'Like us, they realise that everyone in society has to do what they can to
uphold the rule of law but that we also have an obligation to the
to protect the constitution. When you have one responsibility bumping up
against another, then that's when the courts should decide.'
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