Free Expression:

Fahrenheit 4.51: The Sorcerer's Cold Storage

[The Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver sold Harry Potter books. Local would-be censors organized and sued. In this article, owner Joyce Meskis relates a portion of her struggle. Ed.]

A Storm Brewing over Free Speech
by Joyce Meskis

Bookstores are a barometer of the health of democracy: when booksellers are free to sell the books their customers want, ideas circulate easily and debate flourishes. Unfortunately, the experience of the Tattered Cover over the last year is warning of a storm ahead.

In April [2000], five police officers showed up at my office with a search warrant, demanding to review records of books purchased by one of our customers. Just to be clear, I support our law enforcement officers who give tirelessly of themselves on behalf of our community. One of my favorite relatives is a police investigator whom I respect enormously, and I stand in awe of her capabilities and dedication.

But I saw the search warrant as a challenge to the First Amendment rights of our customers, who don't expect to have their purchases reviewed by the authorities. If they suspect that their reading choices may be made public, they will no longer feel free to buy books that are controversial because of the political views they espouse or because they touch on sensitive subjects like health and sexuality. This is the classic chilling of freedom of expression and therefore, a violation of one's First Amendment rights.

A while ago, this search warrant business wasn't so clear in my mind. I can tell you that it is pretty scary when the police show up in your office. There is a natural inclination to get out of their way and give them what they want. But we learned a lot when Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr subpoenaed a Washington bookstore for the records of Monica Lewinsky's book purchases in 1998. A federal judge in that case ruled that free speech depends upon preserving the privacy of book purchase records. We were also reminded that booksellers have a duty to stand up for the rights of their customers.

That is why the Tattered Cover went to court and obtained a temporary restraining order to block the execution of the search warrant. On October 17, we will argue the next stage of our case at a hearing on a motion for a preliminary injunction.

The search warrant case is trouble enough. But I think we are also witnessing a decline in tolerance for dissenting ideas. Recently, a number of Tattered Cover customers protested a book signing at the store by the musician Ted Nugent, who strongly opposes gun control and who made controversial comments about the shootings at Columbine High School. These customers said that if we didn't cancel the signing, they would never shop at our store again.

We refused to cancel the signing because we believe that by offering a diversity of materials and author events without prejudice, we are protecting the rights of each one of us. Without prejudice means that we do not let our own bias against an author's work, or the bias of any individual or group, affect a decision as to whether we stock a book or host a signing.

The protesters did not like our answer. Over the years, we have had to say "no" to a number of our customers. Their complaints have come from a spectrum of views, whether we have stocked Salman Rushdie's work, or hosted Hillary Clinton, Newt Gingrich, or Oliver North to name just a few. As these customers try to persuade us to remove a book, or cancel a signing, we often hear, "I support the First Amendment, but", or, "you can't hide behind the First Amendment, this issue is different." We also hear, "This is a business decision on your part. You can choose what books you stock, the authors who come to sign. You don't have to have this one! You're only in it for the money!" If only these folks knew that when we have a controversial author, the greater likelihood is that the dollars roll out, permanently. Offended customers go away.

Increasingly, I wonder what will happen to the Tattered Cover, other bookstores and libraries. Will we be able to continue to offer the variety of books and authors that provide the debate that we will always need to help us govern ourselves. I worry about this and about heavy weather ahead for democracy.

(Reprinted from The Denver Rocky Mountain News)

Tattered Cover Book Store
1628 16th St. Denver, CO 80202
Phone: (303) 322-1965 Fax: (303) 629-1704

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