As a writer, author and editor I often do research into wherever my interest, the news, or curiosity take me. This should be my and every American’s fundamental right without fear of being regarded suspiciously by my government. I therefore am in complete agreement with the American Library Association on this matter:
- As President Bush prepares for a second term and is making new appointments to his cabinet, the American Library Association (ALA) is calling for the President to nominate and Congress to confirm an Attorney General who can successfully balance national security with respect for civil liberties.
“The departure of John Ashcroft from the position of Attorney General provides a fresh opportunity to review the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, improve public accountability on how these new powers are being used and begin a real dialogue about how to balance national security and privacy rights in America’s libraries,” said ALA President Carol Brey-Casiano. “This law was passed at breakneck speed in the wake of an American tragedy. Now is the time to make necessary corrections.”
The ALA has been a leading voice seeking to amend Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act [overview here]. Among the many changes in U.S. law and practice enabled by the act is the federal government’s ability to override the traditional protections of library reading records that exist in every state. These laws provide a clear framework for responding to national security concerns while safeguarding against random searches, fishing expeditions or invasions of privacy.
“The right to read freely in our nation’s libraries is grounded in the belief that people must be able to access information and ideas without fear of reprisal,” Brey-Casiano said. “When librarians fight against provisions of the PATRIOT Act, we’re fighting for the public.”
In September, the ALA and other members of the book community presented to Congress petitions with more than 170,000 signatures gathered in the Campaign for Reader Privacy, www.readerprivacy.org. Efforts to amend Section 215 have drawn bipartisan support in Congress and in hundreds of cities and counties nationwide.
The booksellers were behind the petition drive as well:
- More than 500 bookstores sent a strong message to Washington on September 29 when the Campaign for Reader Privacy delivered petitions bearing over 185,000 signatures to members of Congress at a Washington press conference. The petitions, which urge Congress to restore the protections for reader privacy that were eliminated by the USA PATRIOT Act, were collected over a seven-month period in bookstores, libraries and the Campaign’s Web site. At the press conference, Oren Teicher, chief operating officer of the American Booksellers Association, explained that booksellers were fulfilling a promise. “We promised our customers that we would present their signatures to Congress, and we are proud to fulfill that promise,” Teicher said. “It is not just booksellers, librarians, publishers and writers that are urging Congress to restore the protections for reader privacy. The readers of America are demanding the right to read freely.”
The petitions were presented to Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the author of the Freedom to Read Protection Act (H.R. 1157), which exempts bookstore and library records from Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. Salman Rushdie, the president of PEN American Center, Patricia Schroeder, the president of the Association of American Publishers and Carla Hayden, the immediate past president of the American Library Association, also spoke. ABA, ALA, PEN and AAP are sponsors of the Campaign for Reader Privacy.
The FBI can walk into any bookstore or library with a search warrant, demand sales or lending records for anyone suspected of “international terrorism” or “clandestine activities.” The employee has no recourse but to turn the records over, then cannot discuss this activity with anyone other than his/her attorney. Ashcroft has claimed this provision has never been used – then why keep it on the books?
- Ashcroft said that the records would show the Justice Department had not exercised its powers under the Act to look at any customer activities without first notifying the parties of the probe. A confidential memo from Ashcroft to FBI Director Robert Mueller obtained by the Washington Post on Thursday appears to confirm Ashcroft’s claim. In it, Ashcroft writes, “The number of times [the provision] has been used to date is zero.”
Nevertheless, a gag provision in the Act still prevents those against whom the Act has been used from telling anyone about the Justice Department’s investigation.