Who Will Defend Our Right to Read? : Government Agencies Must Be Prepared to Move Forcefully to Protect Booksellers

<i> Martin Garbus is a trial attorney in New York who specializes in the book field</i>

After the ringing statements defending the First Amendment are made, the fact remains that the sale of Salman Rushdie’s book (and other books) can be slowed or stopped by intimidation. Iranian President Ali Khamenei has said, “An arrow has been shot toward its target and it is now traveling toward its aim.”

Time is on the side of the extremists. Terror is an easy condition to maintain. It takes no trouble to make a call to a publisher’s office or a bookstore and say that a bomb has been planted.

These threats against Americans exercising their constitutional rights must be met by credible promises of protection from the government. It is our tradition. Just as the federal government stepped in when threats of violence were carried out against civil-rights workers, the Bush Administration has an affirmative duty to move against these threats from new enemies of the First Amendment.

The use of federal and state money and personnel to protect the rights of free speech has ample legal precedent. Without government intervention to ensure compliance with the Constitution, many of the rights in that 200-year-old document would be meaningless.


We must start by dealing with the specifics. The federal and state governments should take action to help protect booksellers and publishers involved in the sale and distribution of Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.”

President Bush and the governors of the most-affected states should immediately ask law-enforcement agencies to identify the most vulnerable booksellers and draw up plans to protect their places of business and their employees and customers. The federal government should immediately appropriate money for the development of those plans, and the state and local governments should immediately come to the aid of those booksellers who have been threatened and those who are in the most potentially troublesome areas. Our First Amendment commitment requires no less.

It would be naive to believe that the fury over Rushdie’s book will soon go away, or that other terrorist groups will not be encouraged by it. The present situation could go on for months.

Can a publisher’s employees continue to function when there are repeated bomb threats evacuating their building? Can bookstores, whether they be independents or chains, be expected to sell books in the face of real or threatened bombings? The psychological, emotional and, yes, financial cost of security for thousands of book-sellers and a publishing company with warehouses, distribution outlets and sales forces throughout the country is formidable.


Publishers know that their personnel and plants are at risk. Their sales representatives have received threats. The booksellers, the most highly visible potential targets, exposed in the storefronts and in the streets and shopping malls of America, are troubled. It’s hard to tell a bookstore employee earning $5 an hour that he should put his body on the line for the Constitution or Thomas Paine, let alone Salman Rushdie. While it may be easy to criticize the book chains that pulled the book from their shelves, their moral and legal obligations are substantial. Once threatened, they bear a responsibility in asking their employees to come to work each day.

People who work in such a situation feel extraordinary pressure. Twice I have been in a building when bomb threats came in. It is a frightening experience; you don’t get over it easily and you don’t want to go back.

We are not talking about stationing police outside bookstores or installing metal detectors. We are talking about extending to bookstores the kind of ready police response that, if an incident of any kind occurs, will have federal agents as well as local police on the scene without delay.

We must let the potential perpetrators know that the federal and state governments consider the protection of book-sellers a priority and will employ all the statutes and crime-stopping techniques available to them. The people who sell in the bookstores and those who are employed by the publishers must know that there is a community behind them--consumers who want the freedom to browse comfortably and read a variety of books with the knowledge that our government has a commitment to protecting their right to read and learn.