DENVER (WOMENSENEWS)–On a clear day, you can see Pike’s Peak from the four-story Tattered Cover book shop in Cherry Creek North. Here, you can sit in an antique, overstuffed chair and peruse “Jane Eyre,” or perhaps check out sources in the latest pop-culture magazine for chocolate-covered goodies shaped like genitalia.
You might also bump into one of the nation’s most intense First Amendment devotees–one willing to battle both in court and the court of public opinion to protect her customers’ privacy. Her commitment is echoed in a pledge, prominently displayed on the wall of the store: “We maintain that it is our responsibility to actively resist censorship that limits your right as our customers to make choices for yourselves.”
Joyce Meskis, a soft-spoken civil rights champion and owner of Colorado’s largest independent book retailer, conceived a passion for intellectual freedom while still in ankle socks. “I read my way through the library,” she recalls. Today, Meskis uses her clout to fight censorship wherever she finds it–and in her business, it’s easy to find.
Meskis is among the women’s rights advocates who see censorship as a greater danger to women than pornography. Her position is highly controversial, especially among those who define pornography as the glorification of violence against women.
A Strong Civil Libertarian, Supporter of Equal Rights
Although she resists labels, including “feminist,” Meskis considers herself “a strong civil libertarian and supporter of equal rights, in all of what that means”–including women’s rights. However, her views on censorship directly oppose those of leading anti-pornography feminists such as Catharine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin.
“Women have everything to gain from access to information of all kinds,” she says. “It troubles me enormously that they find some of that information so disturbing, they’d censor it rather than speak to it.”
Meskis says that the Supreme Court’s 1972 definition of obscenity, in Miller v. California, is “fraught with ambiguity,” with its three-pronged criterion invoking community standards, state law and “literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” She worries that the decision opened the door to arbitrary and ill-advised censorship.
The co-founder of an American Booksellers Association subgroup called American Booksellers for Free Expression, Meskis was in Chicago this past weekend for the association’s Book-Expo America, the country’s largest annual gathering of booksellers. The free-expression booksellers’ group held a silent auction to support the Tattered Cover’s current suit against a Denver area drug task force.
Police want to examine the Tattered Cover’s sales records. They believe that a customer suspected of running a methamphetamine laboratory might have purchased books about drug manufacturing there.
Meskis obtained a restraining order and sued various jurisdictions making up the North Metro Drug Task Force, an agency that does not include the city or county of Denver.
“Just because I buy material on the Third Reich doesn’t make me a Nazi skinhead,” she said.
A judge ordered Meskis to turn over some of the information and she appealed in November. She is filing her first brief on June 11 and expects to wait several months before the case is heard. However, she may be able to bypass the appeals court and go straight to the state’s Supreme Court because the case involves constitutional issues.
Meskis Has Done This Before
This is not the first time Meskis has taken the locals to court. The Tattered Cover sued the Colorado State Legislature when a 1981 law banned a display of books containing sexual content in stores open to children. The so-called “harmful to minors” provision was subsequently dropped from the legislation.
As a proponent of free expression, Meskis must frequently weigh the First Amendment against other civil rights. Take the case of National Rifle Association director Ted Nugent, the author of a book recommending blood sports as wholesome family fun.
Just months after the Columbine school shootings in a nearby suburb, Meskis found herself defending Nugent’s right to sign his books at her store. Several customers, including a Columbine parent, urged her to shut the author out. Canceling a book-signing, they argued, was different from banning books. Meskis disagreed, and the signing proceeded. “You don’t bury ideas by censoring them,” she explains.
She is, however, as yet undecided about the First Amendment rights of a Web site called “The Nuremberg Files,” which won a federal court of appeals decision permitting it continue on First Amendment grounds, even though the site appeared to promote violence against abortion providers. (Its operators are now planning to produce a live Web cast of all those coming and going to clinics. See Outrage of the Week: https://womensenewsp.wpengine.com/article.cfm/dyn/aid/570/context/outrage)
Bookstore Owner Put Her Life on the Line
Meskis’ beliefs are so strong that she was willing to risk the store, and perhaps her life.
She carried Salman Rushdie’s book “The Satanic Verses,” despite a death threat against him and those associated with the book by the fundamentalist Islamic leadership of Iran.
Meskis was horrified when the book’s Japanese translator was assassinated and a Norwegian publisher shot. But it was the 1989 bombing of Cody’s Books in Berkeley, Calif., that shocked her most.
“I never expected that an American bookseller would have to fear for her life,” she says. Undeterred, Meskis publicized her intention to carry the book, even donating a portion of the profits to anti-censorship groups.
Ultimately, Joyce Meskis is driven by her unequivocal belief that “society is always better served by access to the other side.”
“Ideas are dangerous,” she reasons. “We try to rid ourselves of them, but these things don’t go away unless they’re debated fully. In the end, you hope that the good rise and the bad fall.”
Jennifer Woodhull is a free-lance writer and editor in Boulder, Colo. Her writing has appeared in the “Juneau Empire,” the “Boulder Weekly” and various national and regional periodicals.
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American Booksellers for Free Expression: