- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2010

The American Civil Liberties Union wants to protect the privacy of people who buy books like “Obama Zombies: How The Liberal Machine Brainwashed My Generation.” On Aug. 12, a federal judge allowed the left-leaning group to join the side of big business in a court case against greedy, tax-obsessed state bureaucrats.

The ACLU is representing a client who happened to purchase that particular title against a December order from the North Carolina Department of Revenue (DOR) that online retailer Amazon.com turn over records on every single book, CD, DVD or other product shipped to a North Carolina address over the past seven years. Amazon provided detailed information from its ledgers on 50 million items sold in the state, but it stopped short of disclosing the names and addresses of its customers and what items each purchased. Outraged Tar Heel State revenuers threatened to sanction the company, forcing Amazon to file suit to block the state’s administrative demand.

Department officials called Amazon’s case “premature and illusory” while insisting the names and addresses of all the company’s North Carolina customers must be handed over so that residents who fail to pay the state’s “use tax” can face an audit. North Carolina requires that residents carefully document every out-of-state purchase and pay a tax based on this amount each year. The department is threatening to use the information it seeks from Amazon to harass residents who refuse to acknowledge this bogus levy and enter $0 on their tax return. This, of course, would be devastating to Amazon’s business. So too would turning over private information to the state. “Customers who fear that their purchases will not be private are less likely to purchase books, movies, music or other items that might be personal, sensitive or controversial,” Amazon attorneys explained in court papers.

North Carolina is using these threats to coerce Amazon into becoming a revenue collection agent for the state. Such heavy-handed tactics are nothing new, as tax bureaucrats have a long-standing hatred for online booksellers. The fact that private companies located thousands of miles away aren’t interested in collecting revenue on behalf of remote jurisdictions galls petty officialdom. If grabbing more cash means committing “incidental infringement” of a fundamental right, that’s acceptable to North Carolina, which argued that protecting “the substantial government interest in maintaining the integrity of its fiscal policies” is more important than the First Amendment.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that North Carolina’s budget deficit is among the nation’s worst. Reckless spending, not people buying copies of “Obama Zombies” online, undermined the state’s fiscal integrity.

As ACLU staff attorney Aden Fine told The Washington Times, “The state of North Carolina, like all other governmental entities, is not entitled to know what citizens are reading, listening to or watching.” North Carolina residents should tell Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue to keep her hands off the Internet.