Our Right to Read in Privacy

The American Library Association (ALA) has worked diligently for the past two years to increase awareness of a very complicated law – the USA PATRIOT Act – that was pushed through the legislative process at breakneck speed in the wake of a national tragedy. Because the Department of Justice has refused our requests for information about how many libraries have been visited by law enforcement officials using these new powers, we have focused on what the law allows. The PATRIOT Act gives law enforcement unprecedented powers of surveillance – including easy access to library records with minimal judicial oversight.

Among the many changes in U.S. law and practice enabled by the act is the federal government’s ability to override the historical protections of library reading records that exist in every state. States created these confidentiality laws to protect the privacy and freedoms Americans hold dear. These laws provide a clear framework for responding to national security concerns while safeguarding against random searches, fishing expeditions or invasions of privacy.

Librarians are committed to ensuring the highest quality library service and protection of our patrons’ records. This commitment is why we are among the most trusted members of our communities, from Maine to California. We take great pains to be educated about the federal and state laws that govern our ability to serve our communities – which is why we’re so concerned.

Over the past two years, Americans have been told that only individuals directly involved in terrorism need be concerned. This is not what the law says. The act lowers the legal standard to “simple relevance” rather than the higher standard of “probable cause” required by the Fourth Amendment.

In March 2003, the Justice Department said that libraries had become a logical target of surveillance. Which assurance by Mark Corallo are we to believe?

We also have been told that the law only affects non-U.S. citizens. This is not what the law says. In fact, the act amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in such a way that U.S. citizens may now be investigated under the lowered legal standards applied to foreign agents.

And now Attorney General John Ashcroft says the FBI has no interest in Americans’ reading records. While this may be true, librarians have a history with law enforcement dating back to the McCarthy era that gives us pause. For decades, and as late as the 1980s, the FBI’s Library Awareness Program sought information on the reading habits of people from “hostile foreign countries,” as well as U.S. citizens who held unpopular political views.

We are deeply concerned that the Attorney General should be so openly contemptuous of those who seek to defend our Constitution. Rather than ask the nations’ 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.

Or, better yet, federal elected officials could vote – as several U.S. senators and representatives from across the political spectrum have proposed – to restore the historical protection of library records.

Carla Hayden is President of the American Library Association.

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