Information Update - Fall 2003
Public Law 107-56, commonly called the USA Patriot Act, was passed by Congress on October 25, 2001, shortly after and in response to the events of 9/11. This 342-page document, along with the Homeland Security Act, was meant to facilitate the detection and prevent the execution of similar terrorist activities that had produced the World Trade Center tragedy. The Patriot Act was passed through Congress with little input from the public. But since then it has come under critical scrutiny from concerned citizens from both sides of the traditional political fence.
The section of the Patriot Act that most concerns libraries and
librarians is Section 215 that amends the business records sections
Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Previously, federal authorities gathering foreign intelligence information or investigating internationalterrorism could use a FISA court order to access hotel, airline, storage locker, or car rental business records. Section 215 amended this procedure in order to allow a FISA order to be obtained to access any tangible item, no matter who holds it. This would include records of library use and library computer use. The text of the U.S. Code now reads as follows:
Patriot Act Provisions Alarm Library World
Although libraries are not mentioned specifically in this law, they certainly fall within the parameters of its provisions. Patron circulation records, reference question request forms, computer use logs, and Web or e-mail digital records could be fair game for an anti-terrorist investigation. Also, librarians could not inform individual patrons that they were under investigation or that their records had been subpoenaed.
- "The Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or a designee of the Director … may make an application for an order requiring the production of any tangible things (including books,
records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a United States person or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities, provided that such investigation of a United States person is not conducted solely upon the basis of activities protected by the first amendment to the Constitution." (50 USCS &s ect; 1861)
Furthermore, "no person shall disclose to any other person(other than those persons necessary to produce the tangible things under this section) that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has sought or obtained tangible things under this section."Furthermore, "no person shall disclose to any other person (other than those persons necessary to produce the tangible things under this section)that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has sought or obtained tangible things under this section."
It should be pointed out that libraries are not required under the new law to keep any additional records. Nor are they restricted from systematically destroying records which they have produced that have not been subpoenaed. This is exactly what some libraries are now doing, including the Santa Cruz Public Library System in California, which was recently featured in a New York Times article on the Patriot Act (Dean E. Murphy, "Some Librarians Use Shredder to Show Opposition to New F.B.I Powers," New York Times, April 7, 2003, p. A12). At Santa Cruz all paper documents that are no longer of use have posted signs warning patrons of the possibility of an investigation of their library use. Other libraries have shied away from the publicity, feeling it would create undo panic.
The American Library Association has been vocal in expressing its concerns over the abridgement of basic American freedoms by the Patriot Act. A resolution adopted by the ALA Council on January 29, 2003, states that the ALA "opposes any use of governmental power to suppress the free and open exchange of knowledge and information or to intimidate individuals exercising free inquiry." Sections of the Patriot Act are seen as "a present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users" and Congress is urged to "provide active oversight of the implementation" of the Act, "hold hearings to determine the extent of the surveillance on library users and their communities," and "amend or change the sections of these laws and the guidelines that threaten or abridge the rights of inquiry and free expression." (ALA, "Resolution on the USA Patriot Act and the Related Measures That Infringe on the Rights of Library Users," 30 April 2003,