Tattered Cover owner Joyce Meskis – a First Amendment ‘hero’

By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director

As owner of Tattered Cover, the iconic group of independent bookstores, Joyce Meskis is known and admired by Coloradans across the state for nurturing their love of reading over the past four decades.

They may be less familiar with Meskis as a First Amendment champion, a role that the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition recognized at a reception Friday evening during the 2015 national FOI Summit in Denver.

Attorney Dan Recht called Meskis his “hero” and dear friend, describing her as “a thoughtful, sensitive but strong, zealous, passionate advocate of the First Amendment and freedom of expression.” Recht represented Meskis more than a dozen years ago in the second of two landmark court cases involving Tattered Cover.

The first occurred after the state legislature passed a law in 1984 criminalizing the sale of sexually oriented material to minors and the display of such material on newsstands. Tattered Cover challenged the law, taking the case to the Colorado Supreme Court. The Court declared the statute unconstitutional because it infringed on the protected rights of adults.

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Attorney Dan Recht (right) and CFOIC President Steve Zansberg present a gift to Tattered Cover owner Joyce Meskis during the 2015 national FOI Summit in Denver.

In 2002, Tattered Cover prevailed again before the state Supreme Court in a case that affirmed an individual’s right to purchase books anonymously (i.e. without government agents looking over your shoulder) and guaranteed Colorado booksellers a hearing before being required to turn over customers’ purchase records.

“When a person buys a book at a bookstore, he engages in activity protected by the First Amendment because he is exercising his right to read and receive ideas and information,” Justice Michael Bender wrote for the Court. “Any governmental action that interferes with the willingness of customers to purchase books, or booksellers to sell books, thus implicates First Amendment concerns.”

Recht said the ruling in Tattered Cover v. City of Thornton “changed the landscape of First Amendment law. For the first time ever, a state supreme court said that book stores have a private relationship with their book-buying customers and it cannot be violated by a search warrant.”

Book stores in Colorado can’t be searched without a hearing “because of Joyce Meskis’ decision to appeal that case,” Recht said.

For Meskis, it’s all about freedom of information and a range of ideas. That’s what she told The Docket, the magazine of the Denver Bar Association: “Whether you are in agreement or opposition to a political philosophy, you should know what the other side is thinking.” Both access and privacy are paramount, she stressed.

In recognition of her courage in standing up for citizen’s rights to receive information, the CFOIC honored Meskis in 2000 with its Jean Otto Friend of Freedom Award.

Now that she is turning over control of Tattered Cover to new owners, the CFOIC is proud to recognize her lifetime of work in defense of the First Amendment and the people’s right to know.

“This is an amazing evening for me,” Meskis told those attending the reception in the lobby of The Denver Post, many of them long-time friends. “What I do in bookselling is because of you. Without you, as readers, we don’t have a bookstore. We don’t a forum for which to support your rights.”

In a video-recorded tribute, Gov. John Hickenlooper called Tattered Cover “the cement that holds together all those different pieces of our civic tapestry. And behind so much of it has been Joyce Meskis.”

Follow the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition on Twitter @CoFOIC.

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