This Week’s Column:


Maybe they're snooping, maybe they're not. Only the government knows for sure ... and they're not telling ...

... a MobyLives guest column
by Jessamyn West

"The constitution that really keeps us free is our interpretive traditions ... The USA PATRIOT Act takes dead aim at those traditions"
Ben Scotch, Executive Director VT ACLU

12 May 2003 — I recently went to a "town meeting" near my home in rural Vermont. This wasn't the specific New England–y kind of town meeting where the town's business is decided, rather it was an informal get together initiated by our state Representative to Congress, Bernie Sanders, to discuss the USA–PATRIOT Act and his response to it, The Freedom to Read Protection Act [FRPA]. Joining him were two local librarians, including the head of the VT Library Association, one local bookseller, and the Executive Director of the state chapter of the ACLU.

If you haven't heard of the USA PATRIOT Act [USAPA], you should. It is a 300 page document, passed by Congress in October, 2001 while the US was still recovering from September 11th. Under the guise of being tough on terrorism, it broadly expanded the US government's powers of surveillance and seizure. It also created a new class of potential criminals: librarians and booksellers.

Under section 215 of the USAPA, law enforcement officials are permitted to obtain records and materials from libraries and bookstores, including computer sign–up sheets, patron borrowing records, or even keystroke records from computers. Librarians, library staff and bookstore staff are not only legally required to comply with these requests, but they must also not discuss them with anyone, under penalty of arrest. Previously, law enforcement had to show "probable cause" or proof that a crime was or would be committed in order to receive a grand jury subpoena to obtain library records. Now they only need to say that they are conducting an investigation concerning terrorism, or, as Sanders puts it "a fishing expedition."

This, understandably, has upset many librarians and booksellers. In Vermont, a state where the word "freedom" is in the state motto, they fought back. Fourteen cities and towns in Vermont have already passed local legislation against the USAPA, but the librarians were looking for something stronger. The Vermont Library Association is a small organization with less than 400 members, but over 200 librarians petitioned Representative Sanders to do something about the USAPA. Thirty Vermont booksellers also added their names to the letter. His response was to draft the Freedom to Read Protection Act, a bill that specifically negates section 215 of the USAPA, and reverses the gag order.

Sanders is currently trying to raise support for the FRPA in the House of Representatives. It has 82 Congressional co–sponsors as of this writing, and is also endorsed by the American Library Association and the American Booksellers Association. Sanders stressed that he had already received and was continuing to solicit bi–partisan support for the bill. He told the story of an ultra–Libertarian colleague from Texas who nonetheless supported the bill because it adhered to his conservative principles of small government.

Sanders was vehement when he spoke about his distaste for the USAPA. His primary objection was the unconstitutionality of the gag order against librarians and bookstore workers, asking, "Can we protect the American people without abrogating and undermining the Constitution of the United States?" and concluding "We can and we must."

Sanders also objected to the chilling effect that could be created for library and bookstore patrons who were suddenly aware of their potential lack of future and even past privacy, saying "Many librarians are now fearing that people will be looking over their shoulders and/or self–censoring their habits... the moment you have to start thinking about those decisions, you are no longer truly free."

In the activist librarian circles in which I travel, most of this was not news. I had been actively working with my colleagues in the Social Responsibilities Round Table of ALA, as well as on my own, to raise awareness about the USAPA.

Under the assumption that no news is not only good news, but it's legal news, I assisted in a campaign to encourage libraries to get the word out that they hadn't yet been investigated by federal officials. The signs we came up with were humorous ["The FBI Has Not Been Here, watch closely for removal of this sign"] and yet deadly serious. The meme exploded online, I got mentioned in Wired, and then it seemed to die down....

That is, until the New York Times published an article about librarians using shredders to avoid having to produce documents in the event of a visit from the feds. And until the public library in Santa Cruz made a very big deal about putting up signs warning patrons about their reduced privacies post–PATRIOT, with a marvelous caveat to send all comments and questions to John Ashcroft, Washington DC.

People became aware, and they began to react. According to the Bill of Rights Defense Committee one state [HI] and 103 cities, towns, and counties have passed resolutions against the USAPA, covering roughly 10 million people in the US.

The cause was up and running again, with a vengeance, which is what brought me to a small library meeting room in rural Vermont, packed so full that people had to stand outside and peer in the windows.

Sanders was very careful to state that while he is all for trying to reduce the dangers from terrorism, he is too fond of the Constitution to just ignore it because the country is frightened. The audience, who had traveled from towns up to an hour away, had many questions for the Congressman, but most of them boiled down to one general idea: "What can we do?" An audience member made an association with the McCarthy hearings and, like those hearings, the appropriate response was felt to be free speech and more free speech.

The more the USAPA and other similar repressive legislation are "outed" as misguided and paranoid, to say nothing of unconstitutional and quasi–legal, the more we can return to being a society that really encourages and appreciates the free exchange of ideas, not one that pays lip service to ideals and then locks up its librarians.


text of the USAPA

text of the FTRPA

Bill of Rights Defense Committee: towns that have passed resolutions against the USAPA

five technically legal signs for your library

Jessamyn West is the co–editor, with Katia Roberto, of "Revolting Librarians Redux," an anthology of essays about "alternative librarianship." She maintains the site — its motto: "putting the rarin' back in librarian" — and was recently elected to the American Library Association Council.

©2003 Jessamyn West


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