National Library Week was in April and President Bush "celebrated" by making stump speeches in favor of the USA PATRIOT Act [USAPA].
USAPA has been with us since October 2001 when an alarmed Congress hastily passed the 300+ page bill giving the US Government unprecendented leeway in the War on Terror. Attorney General John Ashcroft gave Congress one week to pass the bill without making any changes, saying Congress would be at fault if further terrorist acts occured while they were debating it.
Like many of the other US-declared not-strictly-wars of the last five decades -- most notably the War on Drugs -- the War on Terror pits US might and righteousness against a shifting unknowable opponent in a battle that is more of an unending skirmish than a true tactical engagement. The PATRIOT Act increased the surveillance and investigative powers of US law enforcement without including the normal checks and balances that would prevent these powers from being abused.
Librarians were particularly concerned about the implications of Section 215 which allows for relaxed standards in obtaining search warrants, requesting information, and inspecting records from institutions such as libraries and bookstores. There is an associated gag order, meaning that when the feds come knocking at your library's door, it's illegal to tell anyone that they've been there. Section 215 "sunsets" the last day of 2005. Bush and Ashcroft would like to see that it doesn't and have been lobbying hard to see that it doesn't.
Librarians were not amused.
The taxpayer-funded USAPA-apologist website LifeandLiberty.gov raises the alarmist claim that the USA PATRIOT Act is necessary to avoid the use of libraries by "terrorists and spies" in ways that threaten national security. It addresses the concerns of librarians and the ACLU in its section titled "dispelling the myths".
Librarians got annoyed.
John Ashcroft gave a speech in late 2003 in which he actively ridiculed librarians' resistance to the USA PATRIOT Act stating:
"According to these breathless reports and baseless hysteria, some have convinced the American Library Association that under the bipartisanly enacted PATRIOT Act, the FBI is not fighting terrorism; instead, agents are checking how far you've gotten in the latest Tom Clancy novel."
Librarians got organized.
Though you don't have to be a librarian to dislike the PATRIOT Act, this direct insult to the largest library association in the world was seen by many as the last straw. Carla Hayden, ALA's president, issued a strongly worded statement telling Ashcroft to give us data instead of derogatory remarks.
"Rather than ask the nationsŐ librarians and Americans nationwide to "just trust him," Ashcroft could allay concerns by releasing aggregate information about the number of libraries visited using the expanded powers created by the USA PATRIOT Act."
She got Ashcroft on the telephone and got him to agree to declassify a Justice Department report on USAPA's Section 215 and provide information about law enforcementŐs requests for library records. The Department of Justice released a memo the next day quantifying the number of such visits as zero. Hayden was declared one of Ms Magazine's Ten Women of the Year a few month's later.
This number given in the DoJ memo directly contradicts an earlier study done by Leigh Esterbrook at the University of Illinois' Library Research Center which revealed many libraries that had received visits and requests for records from local law enforcement and the FBI. Fifteen libraries stated "there were questions they did not answer because they were legally prohibited from doing so."
The study also touched on what librarians were doing besides just waiting for the knock on the door.
- They were instructing their staff and their board about current laws and policies regarding patron privacy -- laws that are superceded by Section 215 of USAPA.
- They were making signs to notify their patrons that their privacy was not as secure at it once was. While saying that the FBI had arrived was illegal, saying that the FBI hadn't arrived yet is still legal. As an elected member of the American Library Association's governing Council, I was particularly peeved by the gag order and the snotty talk about librarians. I half-seriously created a series of "technically legal" signs for libraries that would let patrons know that their privacy rights were being eroded while still being within the letter of the law. Much to my surprise, they caught on and can be seen in public libraries in Vermont and elsewhere.
- They were deciding which circulation records to keep and which to purge under the assumption that requests for records are most invasive when there are records to give up. Has the patron returned the book, yes? Then remove the fact that she ever checked it out. This is happening in small libraries like mine as well as big libraries like the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay and Boulder Public Library.
- They were working with their elected representatives like Bernie Sanders of Vermont to introduce and try to pass legislation that exempts libraries from the invasive snooping of the feds: the Freedom to Read Protection Act. Trina Magi a UVM librarian has become something of a celebrity for her work with Sanders, travelling around the state holding town meetings to let citizens know about this new affront to liberty. In May, she received the Playboy Foundation's 2004 Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award.
- They were working with their regional library association and in their towns to pass local legislation against the PATRIOT Act. According to the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, four states and 326 cities and towns have passed resolutions against the PATRIOT Act to date.
And they were writing articles like this one. I'm a public librarian in Central Vermont. I have no special superpowers other than laser-beam righteousness when political players exploit fear for a power grab. If me and my librarian collegaues can rise up from our reference desks and work against the PATRIOT Act, then so can you. Join us.