The American Booksellers Association (ABA) founded the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) in 1990 to promote the free exchange of ideas by defending the First Amendment rights of booksellers, their customers, and others against censorship, especially as they relate to reading materials.
ABFE educates booksellers about dangers to First Amendment rights
It educates booksellers and others about the importance of free expression and the dangers to First Amendment rights posed by censorship; collaborates with other free speech interest groups in challenging censorship and supporting free speech; and participates in legal cases involving First Amendment rights.
ABFFE merged with ABA in 2014, and became American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE).
ABFE opposed FBI’s effort to obtain library records of patrons
The organization has been an outspoken opponent of the USA Patriot Act since its enactment 45 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks.
It particularly opposes section 215, which authorizes the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to obtain bookstore and library records, and section 505, which authorizes the FBI to issue so-called national security letters requiring Internet service providers, telephone companies, and libraries secretly to hand over digital records of their clients’ activities. Congress reauthorized the act in 2006 with some restraints on the FBI’s activities under section 215.
In 2005, the foundation joined the American Library Association and the Freedom to Read Foundation in filing an amicus brief in support of a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the Library Connection, a consortium of libraries in Connecticut, against an FBI effort to force a Connecticut library to supply it information relating to a specific Internet Protocol (IP) address.
As the case made its way through the federal courts, the Department of Justice dropped its demand for the records.
ABFE challenged regulation of minors’ internet access
The foundation also joined with other organizations committed to First Amendment rights to challenge parts of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 and the Child Online Protection Act of 1998, which attempted to regulate minors’ access to indecent material via the Internet.
In Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (1997), the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protected speech on the Internet and that the provisions of the Communications Decency Act referencing “indecent” and “patently offensive” materials were unconstitutionally vague.
In Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union (2004), the Court affirmed a lower court injunction against enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act, because it also suppressed legitimate adult speech.
Not all of the foundation’s efforts have been successful, of course. It filed an amicus brief in a challenge to the Children’s Internet Protection Act of 2000, but in United States v. American Library Association (2003), the Supreme Court held as constitutional the act’s requirement that public libraries install removable filters to block access to pornographic Internet sites.
It also filed an amicus brief in Beard v. Banks (2006), supporting the First Amendment rights of a prisoner in solitary confinement to receive newspapers, magazines, and photographs. The Court ruled that the state had the right to curtail the inmate’s reading material.
The foundation has opposed congressional efforts to amend the Constitution to prohibit flag burning out of concern that it could lead to the suppression of legitimate protests and potentially erode freedom of expression.
ABFE co-sponsors Banned Books Week
The organization co-sponsors Banned Books Week, a national event held the last week of each September to celebrate the freedom to read and to educate the public about First Amendment rights. The American Booksellers for Free Expression newsletter provides information about its numerous activities at the local, state, and national levels.
This article was originally published in 2009. Dr. Judith Ann Haydel (1945-2007) was a political science professor at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and McNeese State University.