Summer reading and government watching

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(Host) Now that summer is finally here, commentator Cheryl Hanna has some thoughts about what to include on your summer reading list.

(Hanna) Many of us need help deciding what to read at the beach this summer. Maybe we’ve checked the book reviews, and gotten suggestions from our friends and the local bookseller. But this year we need something more – something like a government blacklist of books likely to trigger an FBI investigation of our reading habits.

Now, as far as we know, there is no such “banned book” list – yet. But we do know that the government is interested in what we’re reading. Under the so-called Patriot Act, which was passed just days after September 11, the government now has greatly expanded authority to monitor what we’re reading.

Federal agents may seize records from libraries and bookstores that detail what books or newspapers or movies we’ve bought or borrowed, or even sites we’ve surfed on the web. They don’t need to show probable cause any longer, just any reason why the information they want may be related to an ongoing terrorist or intelligence investigation.

Worse yet, librarians and booksellers are forbidden to tell us if we’re under investigation. No one knows how many of these records have been seized because Attorney General John Ashcroft won’t say. Many think this scenario seems more like the plot to a horror story than sound policy in a free democracy – and are trying to have these provisions reversed.

In Vermont, Representative Bernie Sanders recently introduced the “Freedom to Read” Act in Congress. The bill would restore checks on the government’s power. It’s received the support of more than 100 of his colleagues, including those on the right as well as the left. The bill may come before committee soon, although Ashcroft has been urging Congress to expand, not restrict, the government’s power these days. And our state has passed a resolution opposing the Patriot Act as well.

The Justice Department doesn’t take this seriously though. It recently dismissed Vermont and the other 124 communities that have opposed the act as places with insignificant populations that are also likely to have declared themselves nuclear free zones. With so little hope on the political front, maybe the best way to oppose the Patriot Act is simply to read as much as you like and whatever you like.

What the powers that be really want is to scare law-abiding Americans. It’s the classic chilling effect on free speech. And, as the Supreme Court has reminded us time and time again, the best remedy for free speech violations is more speech. So I say, read away!

Since we don’t have an actual blacklist of topics, no one knows for sure what the government’s looking for, but try spy novels, books on Islam, the history of the McCarthy era, or maybe even Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new memoir. Who’d have thought that grabbing a book and heading for the beach would feel like an act of protest as well as an act of patriotism this summer?

This is Cheryl Hanna.

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