Saturday, March 29, 2008


While the Supreme Court gets to ponder whether or not to allow the D.C. handgun ban to stand, think about this: you're not legally required to register your rifle, shotgun, or handgun in the state of Indiana, but if you own a bookstore in that state, you're now required to register books that contain "sexually explicit materials," according to a new law.

A measure passed Indiana's legislature, on March 13th, which makes it a misdemeanor for a bookseller to fail to register with the state when he, or she carries titles which are considered offensive, or deleterious to juveniles.

Under this law, a bookseller must not only pay a usurious $250 registration fee, but also provide a detailed description of his inventory which may include not only novels, but school texts dealing with health, and sexuality issues. And, if allowed to remain on the books, one may even expect history , and science, books, too, to eventually come under state scrutiny.

Indiana's new law seems like the logical extension of a wider national trend, since 9/11, which came about as a result of the so-called USA Patriot Act, in which the Federal Bureau of Investigation now has the capacity to present National Security Letters to bookstores, a demand that they hand over personal data, and records of their customers. This, in no way, means that your friendly neighborhood Barnes & Noble is handing over your personal information to the government. It only means that, thanks to the Patriot Act, the state now has the power to request that information.

This insidious proposed practice, of requiring a bookseller to register with the government, can only lead to self-censorship, i.e. to avoid the registration fee and hassle by simply not carrying any "suggestive" works. Given that selling books is not among the most lucrative professions, in America, how many booksellers will want to pay a $250 registration fee just so they can have a specific title on the shelf, and that's the point behind HB 1042.

Notably, this is first law of its kind on the books anywhere in America, thus setting a dangerous precedent for freedom of expression, and one that should be of concern not merely to fans of the First Amendment, civil liberties groups, or constitutional lawyers, but to anyone who wants the government to stay out of our bedrooms, and our classrooms, too. This kind of prohibilition, and legal restriction, can only carry over to the media, to films, DVDs, and recordings.

This news is fully consistent with escalating Federal Communications Commission trend of slapping "public indecency" penalties on major networks like ABC which faces a $1.43 million penalty for having rapidly exposed a woman's bare back as she got into a shower in an episode of NYPD aired five years ago. Where are federal indecency laws when it comes to sanitizing the images, and/or not showing troops, and Iraqi civilians, injured or killed in Iraq? Is it not war, in and of itself, an obscenity?

But, while Congress acted to regulate the maximum amount the FCC can charge a station for violation with their dubious decency standards to $325,000, where is the oversight of those who declare what is indecent? Indeed, where is the oversight of those who are providing oversight?

More importantly, which presidential candidate, if any, will dare to address this administration's overreaching when it comes to blocking out whole sections of military reports, destroying millions of White House e-mails, censoring newspaper accounts of the war in Iraq, both with respect to the number of casualties and with the coverage of caskets coming home and, now, with this precedent-setting state requirement that a bookseller register a "sexually explicit" book with the state or face criminal charges? We are hopeful that, given his expertise in constitutional law, Senator Obama will recognize this explicit threat to free speech. As for Senator McCain, well...

You may recall that, back in 1998, media mogul Rupert Murdoch hosted a fundraiser for John McCain who was then chairman of the committee that oversees the FCC. At that time, Murdoch called McCain "an outspoken leader for the telecommunications industry." We may infer from this comment that now, a decade later, if elected, the Arizona senator will not only support immunity from prosecution for telecoms, but pursue the neo-conservative agenda, as exemplified by the FCC, to impose gargantuan "indecency" fines for little more than exposing a naked back.

HB 1042, which was signed, two weeks ago, by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, does not go into effect until July, and groups like the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression are organizing to compel the governor to veto it. As Chris Finan, ABFFE president, says "It is un-American to force booksellers to register with the government based on the kinds of books they carry," and it is yet another symptom of just how demented it is to mandate registering books, and not firearms. When was the last time we heard about anyone dying from reading "Lady Chatterley's Lover?"

This measure must be stopped, dead in its tracks, before it spreads like a computer virus to the rest of the country. .