Starr bookstore subpoena disgusts privacy advocates

Thursday, March 26, 1998

WASHINGTON — Special Counsel Kenneth Starr has set off a First Amendment firestorm by issuing a subpoena for the records of book purchases made by Interngate star Monica Lewinsky from a popular Washington bookstore.

Carol O. O'Riordan, the lawyer for Kramerbooks & afterwords, said it is the bookstore's policy not to reveal information about individual customers' purchases. “Kramerbooks believes that investigations into book purchases by individuals are an invasion of privacy and a threat to First Amendment freedoms,” she said.

Nonetheless, the store will produce records of a few of Lewinsky's transactions that were specifically identified by the Office of Independent Council, she said.

The New York Times quoted O'Riordan as saying that the records of “fewer than six” transactions by check or credit card dating from November 1995 will be provided. According to the Times, the date corresponds with the time frame in which Lewinsky told a friend, Linda Tripp, that she had begun a sexual relationship with President Clinton, a conversation that Tripp tape-recorded.

The bookstore's compliance is the result of a negotiated agreement with Starr's office that limited the scope of the original grand-jury subpoena for documents that was served on the establishment, situated in the heart of the trendy Dupont Circle area, last Monday. The original subpoena called for the production of “all documents and things referring or relating to any purchase by Monica Lewinsky,” according to a news release from O'Riordan's law firm.

That would have posed “a serious compliance dilemma,” O'Riordan said, since it could have required a search through “volumes of receipts, vouchers and other records over a 29-month period.”

According to the Times, O'Riordan said the bookstore was “in the cross-hairs of a special prosecutor.” If the store had gone to court to quash the subpoena, O'Riordan told the Times, it would have incurred extra costs, its business would have been disrupted and it might have fared worse than it did by agreeing to partial compliance.

According to O'Riordan's news release, the bookstore will not confirm or comment on any particular purchase made by Lewinsky. That reference related to a report in The Washington Post that one of the books Lewinsky purchased was Vox, a novel about yuppie phone sex written by Nicholson Baker.

Starr, who has been under fire from both Republicans and Democrats for an investigation that has veered substantially off its original course, hit another nerve with his attempt to obtain records of Lewinsky's book purchases.

“What is this, guilt by association?” Pat Schroeder, a former Colorado congresswoman who now heads the Association of American Publishers, said. “If you're associated with different authors or books, are we conveying something here? I have absolutely no idea what he is trying to do.”

Calling Starr's bookstore subpoena “beyond the pale,” Amy Isaacs, national director of Americans for Democratic Action, sent a letter to the special prosecutor protesting on First Amendment grounds.

“It is an outrageous act, deeply insidious to First Amendment freedoms, which smacks of some of the worst abuses under a totalitarian regime. Indeed, it is difficult to envision any legitimate purpose for such a subpoena,” Isaacs said.

William Ginsburg, Lewinsky's lawyer, told The Washington Post: “We have now gone from invasion of privacy to 'Fahrenheit 451' (a Ray Bradbury novel about book-burning). This is 'Animal Farm.' This is “Brave New World.' My God, they've got the government in our bathroom.”

Christopher Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, said the bookstore subpoena had “serious First Amendment consequences” and set a dangerous precedent.

“If the government can find out what books we are buying, we will no longer feel free to buy the books we want. That would be the death of free speech.”

Finan said bookstores were not like other businesses because they “give substance to First Amendment rights by providing an environment for the free exchange of ideas.”

David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said, “It would be great if bookstores didn't maintain any information on their customers. If they insist on doing so for their own commercial reasons, we need to ensure that those records are protected.”

A similar flap over the rental records of video-store customers surfaced during confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees Robert Bork, who failed to win a seat on the high court, and Clarence Thomas, who did. Such a stir was created that Congress adopted the Video Privacy Act of 1988, which protects video rental records.

Schroeder, a Democrat, noted that conservatives, who supported both the Bork and Thomas nominations, and liberals, who opposed the two nominees, both joined in their outrage over access to video-rental records.

“You would have to think that they would react strongly to this, too,” she said. “I think it gives Republicans (who now control the House and Senate) a great opportunity to see how outraged they are about this. They were outraged by videos. Let's see how outraged they are about books.”

Protecting the privacy of a person's reading habits has long been an issue of concern to the American Library Association. According to officials of the association, 45 of the 50 states have some sort of confidentiality law protecting borrowing records.