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Former bookseller Joyce Meskis a ‘First Amendment hero’

Steve Zansberg
Joyce Meskis

The passing of Joyce Meskis, former owner of the Tattered Cover Book Store, on Dec. 22, provides the opportunity to celebrate her numerous and substantial accomplishments in improving the lives of all Coloradans. Many already know that Joyce purchased the sleepy, tiny bookshop in the Cherry Creek North neighborhood of Denver in 1974 and transformed it into the beloved institution it is today.

Beset by fierce competition from Amazon, Borders, Barnes and Noble, and other national bookselling outfits, Joyce was the guiding light that earned the stellar reputation –worldwide – for her independent bookstore with its massive, eclectic collection of books, magazines, etcetera, including personalized handwritten “staff favorites” recommendations that sparked many to consider different perspectives.

While much has already been written praising Joyce for her extraordinary warmth, empathy and insightful thinking (and deservedly so), I write to say, “Thanks, Joyce,” on behalf of all Coloradans for being a true “First Amendment hero.” A hero, in my estimation, is someone who takes on difficult battles, despite long odds and personal sacrifice, to vindicate important principles she holds dear for the benefit of others. There can be no doubt that Joyce Meskis was a true hero.

Time and time again, Joyce used her platform to champion the rights of those her bookstore served, readers and others wishing to expand their intellectual, emotional and spiritual horizons.

In 1984, she challenged a state law that criminalized the display or sale of sexually explicit – but not obscene – literature to people under the age of 18. Colorado’s Supreme Court ruled the statute was unconstitutional and could not be enforced. Joyce was not a “smut peddler” but she was firmly committed to the principle that all people, including those younger than the age of majority, should have free access to non-obscene information.

Years later, Joyce again stood up for the rights of her store’s patrons, the readers, when she challenged a search warrant from law enforcement agents for business records that would disclose books a suspected illegal drugmaker/distributor had purchased from her bookstore. Joyce first got the matter before a state trial court judge –notwithstanding that there was no right, at that time, to disobey a duly-authorized search warrant – then took the matter up, again, to Colorado’s Supreme Court.

In a landmark ruling, the court held that our state Constitution’s freedom of speech provision guarantees greater rights for bookstore customers and library subscribers than those afforded under the First Amendment.

The court held, first, that no records reflecting the reading choices of any individual can be obtained via a search warrant; such intrusive inquiries require serving a subpoena. Under our state Constitution, any person whose reading records are sought is entitled to appear before a judge to challenge the subpoena. Second, in order to defeat the person’s presumptive right to receive information in private, without the government peering over his or her shoulder, the party who issued the subpoena must satisfy a formidable substantive burden, which was not met in that particular case.

Years later, with the consent of the customer whose records had been sought by search warrant, Joyce revealed that the purchase record in question was for a book on Japanese calligraphy. In other words, its disclosure would not have posed any risk of prosecution to the book purchaser. Joyce knew this, of course, when she waged this protracted and costly battle (and not merely financially) all the way up to Colorado’s Supreme Court. She fought to vindicate an important principle. And she won that battle, for all of us.

Every one of us owes Joyce Meskis a tremendous debt of gratitude. Though soft-spoken and modest, she was among the fiercest advocates for the freedom of speech and thought that I have had the good fortune to encounter.

Steve Zansberg is a First Amendment attorney in Denver and president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. Zansberg has represented The Durango Herald and The Journal.