The story is now well-known: in 1988, Viking Penguin published Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses; almost immediately, it caused controversy because of what some Muslims considered its blasphemous references. The publisher received bomb threats, as did bookstores. According to some reports, the novel was unavailable in one-third of bookstores across the U.S. At the time, the American Booksellers Association's board was stepping up to help booksellers deal with free speech issues, but its staff worried it wasn't spending enough time helping its members stay in business. So in 1990, as the Rushdie drama continued to rage, ABA created the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. ABFFE strongly supported the publication and sale of The Satanic Verses, and in 1993, it helped booksellers collect 15,000 signatures on petitions asking President Bill Clinton to meet with Rushdie, who was still in hiding following the threats. Clinton met with Rushdie, who thanked booksellers for their support.
Twenty years later, are the days of bomb threats at bookstores long gone? It's possible. Current ABFFE president Chris Finan says, "There [hasn't been] anything anywhere near that dramatic" since he took over in 1998. But that hasn't stopped the organization from getting involved in free expression concerns in nearly every state over the past two decades.
One of ABFFE's biggest issues since the Rushdie episode has been third-party liability: holding booksellers responsible for criminal acts by people who read things in books. In 1991, ABFFE opposed the Pornography Victims' Compensation Act, a federal bill making booksellers liable for injuries "caused" by perpetrators' exposure to sexually explicit material. Following a campaign by ABFFE and its sister organization, Media Coalition, the bill was defeated in 1992.
Then, in 1994, ABFFE supported bookseller efforts—led by Joyce Meskis, owner of Denver's Tattered Cover Book Store—to defeat referendums in Colorado and Oregon that would have broadened the obscenity laws and restricted free speech rights in those states. ABFFE played a role in defeating both ballot measures by a large margin. Also on the list of ABFFE coups is its 1997 condemnation of a campaign to force the removal of books by acclaimed photographer Jock Sturges that included pictures of naked children. There were no bomb threats over the Sturges works, but some demonstrators invaded stores and ripped up the books—which was enough to make ABFFE join Barnes & Noble and Borders in issuing a statement saying it supported the right to sell the legal material. "It was a very serious threat," recalls Finan. "And it's a good demonstration that ABFFE [which frequently collaborates with independents] has also always worked closely with the chains in defense of the free speech rights of their readers."
Finan says the most significant change in the past 20 years, in terms of what ABFFE does, has been the rise of privacy as a concern. In 2001, ABFFE notified bookstores that their records could be secretly seized under the USA Patriot Act and told them how to seek legal counsel without violating a gag order; earlier this year, House and Senate Judiciary committees approved additional protections for bookstore and library records under the act (but further consideration of changes has been postponed until 2011). Finan also says the fight over restrictions on sexual material remains an important part of what ABFFE does. "I don't think it will ever go away," Finan says. "The decency groups and the antipornography groups are constantly pushing to expand the laws in this area. We'll always be in a position where we need to fight back. It doesn't seem to matter how many times we go into court and successfully challenge these efforts. There's always somebody else."
Oren Teicher, currently CEO of the American Booksellers Association, served as ABFFE's president from its creation in 1990 through 1998, when Finan took over. "Helping to organize and lead ABFFE during its first years was an honor," he says. "Chris has taken ABFFE to new heights, and, under his leadership, booksellers in the United States could not be better represented on issues relating to free expression and the First Amendment."
Although the obvious drama may have ebbed, booksellers still face free expression struggles on an almost daily basis. As Finan notes, "The kind of pressure exerted on Rushdie is still very much a part of our environment."