State Court Rulings Yield Good Week for Freedom

May 1, 2002
by Joseph P. Tartaro
Executive Editor

The week beginning April 8 was a great week for freedom. Upper level courts in two states upheld basic human freedoms in two widely different cases.

While decisions were based primarily on state constitutional issues, the impact of these decisions will ripple out to disturb a legal sea that tends to support the forces in power rather than allow individual rights to float free.

The first was a unanimous Colorado Supreme Court decision issued on April 8 that dealt with the right of free speech and free access to information. I will go into that in greater detail in a moment.

The second was the unanimous April 10 decision of a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeals in Ohio upholding the Jan. 10 ruling by Hamilton County Judge Robert Ruehlman that the Buckeye State's laws banning the concealed carry of firearms by law-abiding citizens violated the state constitution.

Right to Carry
Gun Week Senior Editor Dave Workman's detailed report on the momentous Ohio Court decision appears on Pages 1 and 6 of this issue. I will only add here some comment on the decision by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, formerly known as Handgun Control Inc. (HCI).

The Brady Bunch immediately issued a press release labeling the court's decision a "judicial aberration," under the scare headline, "Court decision puts Ohio at risk - Allows unrestricted carrying of concealed guns."

The Brady Campaign's Dennis Henigan made it clear that they have been helping the city, county and state fight the suit from the beginning and promised "assistance" to Cincinnati in an appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court, as well as in seeking to continue a stay of the original order.

Actually, Cincinnati filed their appeal with the Ohio Supreme Court immediately, but the court adjourned for the week without comment, thus giving Ruehlman's Jan. 10 order validity - at least for a few days - and allowing the residents of Hamilton County to savor the freedom of "Vermont-style" carry, however briefly.

The Colorado Supreme Court's strong 6-0 ruling on April 8 on behalf of a Denver book store, its owner and civil liberties would have been remarkable even if the nation had not been engaged in a war on terrorism since last fall, according to The Denver Post. And even if the Patriot Act had not become law, I might add.

In upholding the Tattered Cover book store's right not to surrender its customers' book purchasing records to law enforcement, the high court ruled that henceforth, booksellers must be given an opportunity to appear at a hearing before such search warrants can be issued. Historically, law enforcement has made its case for a warrant unilaterally before a judge.

Justice Michael Bender, writing for a unanimous court, noted that if the warrant had been executed, it would have had a “chilling effect” on the book-buying public. This effect would not have been offset by any subsequent ruling in favor of the customer, he wrote, such as suppression of the evidence seized.

Because Coloradoans have a "privacy interest" in their book-buying records, that means "special protections" must be given to booksellers when governments come after their records. Thus the requirement that booksellers be invited to participate in the hearing on the warrant.

Time Line In the case at hand, law enforcement officials had found a mailing envelope from the Tattered Cover in the trash left outside a suspected methamphetamine lab in Thornton, CO, they raided in March 2000. Inside the lab they found two dubious books (exactly the kind that the First Amendment is supposed to protect): Advanced Techniques of Clandestine Psychedelic and Amphetamine Manufacture by "Uncle Fester" and The Construction and Operation of Clandestine Drug Laboratories by "Jack B. Nimble." What law enforcement wanted to establish was that the books had come in the envelope, and if so, the identity of the person who ordered and received them.

In March-April 2000 a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent subpoenaed Tattered Cover owner Joyce Meskis in an attempt to identify who among several people in the trailer ran the lab. The Metro Task Force obtained a warrant from a Denver judge to get book-buying records from the Tattered Cover after the task force was turned down by Adams County Deputy District Attorney Fran Wasserman.

When five North Metro Drug Task Force officers arrived at the Tattered Cover with the search warrant, Meskis obtained a temporary restraining order from Denver District Judge Martin F. Egelhoff, delaying the search while she fought it in court.

In June 2000, book store owners and officials from 15 organizations such as the National Coalition Against Censorship and The Association of American Publishers filed a brief in Denver District Court in support of Tattered Cover.

In October-November 2000, Denver District Judge J. Stephen Phillips ruled that Tattered Cover must give authorities information on a transaction involving the drug suspect, but Tattered Cover attorney Daniel Recht filed a notice of appeal, and Phillips ordered a stay on the ruling while the case was under appeal.

In June 2001, the Colorado Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal, bypassing the state Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court heard arguments in the appeal on Dec. 5, 2001.

Meskis, Chicago-born and a former math-science teacher who turned librarian, has been proclaimed a heroine by many civil libertarians, but like many other champions of unpopular and thorny causes, she is normally a quiet and self-effacing person who shrinks from the limelight.

But like many other heroes and heroines whose personal code and philosophy is pure, she refused to be pushed by anyone. Ever since she purchased the Tattered Cover in 1974 and turned it from a 950-square-foot afterthought in Cherry Creek to its iconic status as one of the largest independent book-selling operations in the country, Meskis has been quietly unbending in freedom-of-expression issues.

In 1981, for instance, she sued - successfully - the Colorado legislature when one of its laws banned a display of books containing sexual content in stores open to children. After that, she became a founder of Colorado Citizens Against Censorship.

Moreover, when Islamic fundamentalists were issuing threats to bookstores that sold Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, Meskis refused to pull it from her shelves, The News reported.

She has been equally adamant about not caving in to pressure from groups who took umbrage at the authors who came to the Tattered Cover to sign their books. Whether she received threats or just strenuous pressure from people protesting the appearances of anyone from pro-gun rocker and NRA board member Ted Nugent to former first lady Hilary Clinton, Meskis stood firm.

The Colorado Court's decision, based primarily on the state constitution, makes it clear that people not only have the right to free speech, they have the right of free access to information - of all kinds - even if the subjects discussed are offensive or criminal. And what is more, that right to information carries with it the right to be anonymous.

This is a key point for people who have an interest in firearms, even those that they might legally own.

The Stores
Besides the constitutional questions involved in this case, I had another rationale for my interest.

I have been in both Tattered Cover book stores while visiting Denver and I would be unlikely to visit that city again without also visiting one or both of the stores.

Each is unique in many ways, although I prefer the larger one in Cherry Creek, which is where Joyce Meskis started the business in the 1970s. That is not to say that the LoDo (a Denverism for Lower Downtown) isn't a great bookstore, too. For those who don't live in or visit the Denver area, there's always the on-line bookstore at:

The Rocky Mountain News claims that Tattered Cover stocks 500,000 books, but what I consider more important, the stores carry books and periodicals that you will not find in Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks, Brentanos, Doubleday and most other national book sales chains.

At Tattered Cover stores you will find on prominent display almost any current in-print firearms and firearms civil rights book you can imagine, and you will find books on practically any subject you can imagine.

<=Prior     Next=>