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September 01, 2000

Joyce Meskis: Pushing Books and Free Speech

By Christopher Finan

Joyce Meskis, the owner of Denver's Tattered Cover Book Store, will tell you she doesn't go looking for trouble-it finds her.

The most recent occasion was last summer when her Denver bookstore, the Tattered Cover, became a target for protest over a book signing by the aging rock star Ted Nugent. Nugent is a director of the National Rifle Association and an avid hunter who strongly opposes gun control. His book expounds his positive view of guns and argues that hunting can instill discipline in children and provide wholesome family recreation. Nugent was in town for a concert, but his publisher had suggested that he take the opportunity to sign some copies of his book at the Tattered Cover.

Columbine High School, the site of the massacre perpetrated by two armed students last year, is located in a Denver suburb, so it was inevitable that Nugent would provoke controversy when he came to town. But if Nugent's position on gun control was offensive, what truly outraged people was a statement in his book that suggested that Columbine teachers and athletes were somehow at fault because they did not take the opportunity to rush one of the shooters while he reloaded his shotgun.

The parent of a Columbine student as well as others in the community called Meskis and urged her to cancel the signing. In a town not yet fully recovered from tragedy, there would have been very little criticism of the Tattered Cover had it denied a forum to a man whose views were offensive to so many. Canceling a signing wasn't censorship, the protestors said; Nugent could go peddle his book elsewhere.

Although Meskis doesn't look for trouble, she has never backed away when confronted with it. She lives by the words that hang on the wall of her store:

To Our Customers,
A Statement and a Promise
Within the Tattered Cover there resides a vast array of books containing ideas as diverse as the world in which we live. We sincerely believe that censorship in any form, whether by individuals, special interest groups, or by government is seriously damaging to every citizen of this country. We believe that it is in the best interests of our democratic society that ideas of all kinds be allowed to flow freely to the individuals who seek them, regardless of what our own tastes might be.

While we recognize that every individual makes personal choices about what's good or bad, right or wrong, valuable or worthless, we feel it is not our right to make those choices for you regarding your reading material or the authors who sign copies of their books at the store.

In fact, we maintain that it is our responsibility as booksellers to actively resist censorship that limits your right as our customers to make those choices for yourselves.

As Meskis explained to the Columbine mother, hosting Nugent in no way implied an endorsement of his views, but canceling his appearance, on the other hand, would clearly express hostility toward them. "And make no mistake," Meskis later wrote in her store newsletter, "it is just as much a censorial act to prevent an author signing because one doesn't like the views of the author, as it would be if the book were disallowed on the shelf."

Meskis was not happy when the woman announced that she would no longer shop at the Tattered Cover and would urge her friends to follow suit. The Tattered Cover is competing with larger chain booksellers offering discounts Meskis' store cannot match and online booksellers who are grabbing a growing percentage of sales by offering even lower prices. How many customers can she afford to lose? To be sure, Meskis takes the loss of any customer very seriously. But for her, the defense of First Amendment rights is as much a part of bookselling as the books themselves.

The Tattered Cover is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country, operating from two locations in the Denver area. Its biggest branch occupies 40,000 square feet in a former department store just outside the city limits. In 1994, Meskis opened a second store and administrative offices in a redeveloped area of downtown Denver. It has become a beloved Denver institution because of the breadth of its inventory (more than 150,000 titles) and its highly trained staff. It is one of the landmarks on most tours of Denver conducted for out-of-town visitors.

The Tattered Cover has always been more than just a place to buy books. In 1989, when violence was threatened against bookstores that sold Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, Meskis and the owners of most independent booksellers in Colorado paid for a newspaper ad that announced their intention to continue to sell the book. The Tattered Cover went further, donating profits from the sale of Satanic Verses to several anti-censorship groups. The Denver Post took note in an editorial, pronouncing the store "a cherished resource for Coloradans who think. . . . Turning a threat to freedom of expression into money to defend our right to read and write as we see fit is the kind of deft response Coloradans have come to expect from the people at the Tattered Cover," it said.

So no one in Denver was surprised to learn that in April of this year, Meskis was in trouble again. This time she had refused to allow police officers to execute a search warrant in her store for records of books purchased by a man who was suspected of illegally manufacturing methamphetamine. In a raid of the man's home, the authorities had found an empty envelope from the Tattered Cover and were hoping to prove that it contained books about the manufacture of methamphetamine to tie their suspect to drug-making paraphernalia found in his house.

Initially, the police had hoped Meskis would turn over the records voluntarily. But she declined their request, explaining that her customers would be reluctant to buy controversial but First Amendment-protected books if the police could easily discover their titles. She had already had some experience with the issue. As a member of the board of directors of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), Meskis had been involved in the successful defense of Kramerbooks, a Washington, D.C., bookstore that was subpoenaed by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr for records of Monica Lewinksy's book purchases. "I know a challenge to the First Amendment when I see one, and I am not going to stand aside and let it happen," Meskis said.

The police persisted. An agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration sent her an administrative subpoena. The Tattered Cover's lawyer, Dan Recht of Denver, objected, urging the police to seek an enforceable subpoena from a judge who would weigh the First Amendment issue involved in the case. Instead, the police, who are part of a multi-county anti-drug task force, sought a search warrant from the district attorney of a suburban Denver county. When he, too, raised objections, they asked the Denver district attorney for the warrant, without telling him that they had already been unsuccessful, and he issued the warrant.

Meskis was surprised and a little frightened when five plainclothes police officers showed up at her office with a search warrant and demanded her records. She stalled for time, contacting Recht, who ultimately was able to obtain a temporary restraining order.

Meskis has received strong support for her stand. Denver's two daily newspapers, which are highly competitive and rarely agree on anything, both published editorials praising the Tattered Cover. National groups have also strongly endorsed her position. An amicus brief sponsored by the ABFFE was joined by the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, the Magazine Publishers of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, PEN American Center, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Thomas Jefferson Center for Freedom of Expression, and the National Coalition Against Censorship.

The case has been costly for the Tattered Cover. Although the ABFFE is helping Meskis with legal costs, she has already spent thousands of dollars that she can ill afford at a time of cutthroat competition in the retail book business. In addition, the time she has put into the case has added hours to a day that is already full taking care of her business.

But Meskis has always spent heavily in time and money to support the First Amendment. Most booksellers have a strong commitment to protecting free speech, but few are as passionate-or as demanding of themselves-as Meskis. "We booksellers are gatekeepers of the free expression of ideas," Meskis told members of the American Booksellers Association in 1991,when she was the Association's president.

. . . [I]t's my view that as booksellers we have our own version of the Hippocratic oath-to maintain the health and well-being of the First Amendment. . . . That, in fact, it is our most honorable charge to provide books of all kinds, even those with which we may personally disagree, find distasteful, even abhor.

She has held this view since she bought the Tattered Cover in 1974. At the time, it was a tiny store, 950 square feet of space, and it wasn't much bigger when Meskis became involved in her first major free speech fight, in 1981. The state legislature had passed a law banning the display of books with sexual content in any store that was open to children, but Meskis was worried that the law might force her to remove novels, art books, and other important works from display. The Tattered Cover filed suit. Meskis also joined a challenge to the Colorado obscenity statute. The courts in both cases upheld the plaintiffs, striking the provision of the "harmful to minors" law that applied to bookstores. In the obscenity case, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution's guarantee of free expression is broader than the First Amendment, meaning that even restrictions the U.S. Supreme Court declares constitutional may not pass muster in Colorado. As a result, the Colorado obscenity law is considerably narrower than in other states.

Although much of Meskis' free expression work has revolved around her store, her commitment to the issue has been felt far beyond Colorado. Censorship pressures grew significantly during the 1980s, as critics on the left like feminist Catherine MacKinnon and crusaders on the right like the Reverend Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association demanded a crackdown on sexually explicit speech. In 1986, the U.S. Attorney General's Commission on Pornography launched a campaign for more vigorous enforcement of the obscenity laws. At the time, Meskis was a member of the board of directors of the American Booksellers Association and strongly advocated that the Association increase funding for anti-censorship groups. As the chair of a special task force, she recommended that the Association create ABFFE to ensure that the issue of free expression got the attention it deserved from booksellers.

Meskis also played an important role in the defeat of federal legislation that authorized civil suits against producers and distributors of nonobscene but sexually explicit material that was allegedly linked to sexual crimes. The Pornography Victims Compensation Act was introduced in 1991 and had significant bipartisan support from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. As president of the Association, Meskis testified against the bill and succeeded in securing the support of Senator Hank Brown, a Colorado Republican and member of the committee.

The Tattered Cover provided important political cover for Brown when he was attacked by James Dobson, the president of Focus on the Family, a conservative family group that had recently relocated to Colorado Springs. Dobson criticized Brown on the state's Christian radio stations, and pickets outside the senator's Denver office accused him of being soft on pornography. Meskis and other Colorado booksellers countered by soliciting signatures on a petition urging Brown to oppose the bill.

As a result, Brown continued to raise questions about the bill that delayed its final consideration for many months. With the support of Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the chairman of the committee, he was finally able to remove the worst features of the bill. Although it was finally approved by the committee, the Pornography Victims Compensation Act never received consideration by the full Senate and died at the end of the session. It was never reintroduced.

Despite her reputation, no one really expected Meskis to become involved in the next major free speech fight in Colorado, in 1994. She was only months away from opening her second store. Chain bookstores had recently opened their first "superstores" in Denver and were set to start doing business in close proximity to each of her stores. Meskis had doubts herself about her ability to fight a proposed amendment to the state constitution that was intended to narrow the free expression clause. However, she attended an organizational meeting of the Colorado Citizens Against Censorship; before it was over, she had agreed to serve as the group's chair.

The campaign against Amendment 16 involved a vigorous defense of free speech. While the supporters of the amendment made exaggerated claims about the availability of child pornography and obscenity in Colorado, its opponents warned of the dangers of censorship. Working on a very limited budget, the Colorado Citizens Against Censorship developed many cost-effective techniques to get their message out. One of the most dramatic was the closing of the Tattered Cover and fifteen other bookstores across the state for sixteen minutes as a symbolic protest against Amendment 16. The Tattered Cover not only bolted its doors but also closed the cash registers to customers who were still in the store and programmed the telephone system to inform callers why the store was closed. Theaters throughout the state showed an anti-censorship trailer starring Garrison Keillor, and the local cable TV operator broadcast a spot produced for the Colorado campaign that featured a cowboy talking about how Amendment 16 threatened the personal freedom of Coloradans.

Meskis even traveled across the state to speak out against Amendment 16. She flew to Grand Junction, which is on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, then rented a car and drove back across the Rockies to arrive home in time to host a reception at her new store. She also argued her case before the editorial boards of the Denver daily newspapers. Later, the Denver Post came out against the initiative, and the Rocky Mountain News remained neutral. In the end, almost all of the state's newspapers opposed Amendment 16. In addition, an impressive array of organizations announced their opposition to the amendment, including the Colorado Library Association, the League of Women Voters, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Colorado AIDS Project, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. On Election Day, 63 percent of the voters rejected Amendment 16, defeating it soundly.

The Colorado campaign was not a one-woman show. Meskis was assisted by a full-time campaign manager and an active steering committee. Yet the campaign would not have succeeded without her. The proposed change in the Colorado constitution was obscure enough that it might have escaped notice by many of those who ultimately played important roles in the campaign. The concerns expressed by the owner of the state's largest bookstore signaled the importance of the issue at stake.

Meskis' efforts were honored in 1995, when she was awarded the PEN/Newman's Own First Amendment Award. (Characteristically, Meskis invested the $25,000 prize in protecting free speech, founding the Colorado Freedom of Expression Foundation.) Since then, Meskis has received the William J. Brennan, Jr., Award of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Freedom of Expression and the first Lifetime Achievement Award ever issued by the American Booksellers Association.

The owner of the Tattered Cover has accepted these awards with modesty, insisting that there is nothing remarkable about her defense of the First Amendment-"booksellers do it every day."

Clearly, for Joyce Meskis, getting in trouble is part of the job.

Christopher Finan is president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, which was founded in 1990 to defend the First Amendment rights of booksellers and their customers.

As published in Human Rights, Fall 2000, Vol. 27, No. 4, p.10-13.