Information Update - Fall 2009

The Patriot Act - Still an Issue

      Despite the change in presidential administrations, the USA Patriot Act, a law rushed through Congress shortly after the 9/11 attacks, remains a hotly contested issue. Key provisions of the Act will sunset on December 31, 2009, and advocates on both sides of the issue have come forward with campaigns to either reform the Act or to continue its empowerment of government to monitor internet and library users.
 
     In March House Republicans, led by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, introduced the Safe and Secure America Act to extend the three expiring provisions of the Patriot Act for another ten years. Among these is the provision which expanded the types of information the government can demand and also lowered the standard of proof necessary to obtain business records, including library patron records. Under Section 215, the "library provision," the government need only claim that the items sought are relevant to an authorized investigation; they do not need to pertain to a person the FBI is investigating or involved with terrorism or espionage. Proponents of the Safe and Secure America Act point out that since the implementation of the Patriot Act there has not been another 9/11-type attack on American soil.
 
     Opponents of the Patriot Act have been quick to rally. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a report in March examining the abuses that have occurred under the Act. Their report "Reclaiming Patriotism," is available at http://www.aclu.org/pdfs/safefree/patriot_report_20090310.pdf.
 
     The Association of American Publishers, the American Booksellers Association, and American Library Association, and PEN American Center launched the Campaign for Reader Privacy to restore safeguards that were stripped away by the Patriot Act. In March a bipartisan bill, the National Security Letters Reform Act of 2009, was introduced into the House, aimed at curbing abuse of power of the federal law enforcement agencies in the wake of the Patriot Act.
 
     Interestingly, patrons of not just traditional libraries, but also electronic libraries, have been the target of investigation. The Internet Archive, which collects and makes available Internet sites and pages from the past, was the object of a demand in November 2007 from the FBI for information about one of its users.
 
     Despite a new regime in Washington, the controversy over the balance of civil liberties versus the need for stricter law enforcement capabilities will continue with no easy solution in sight.
 
Kevin Norris
Pride, Passion, Promise: Experience Our Jesuit Tradition