Defending the Right Right to Read

A visit to the library hardly seems like an act that would get you in trouble, but some librarians are warning patrons that they could be putting themselves at risk by what they read.

At public libraries in Skokie, Ill., and Killington, Vt., for example, there are signs warning that the government could demand access to patrons' reading records and the library could not refuse.

At other libraries, such as in Santa Cruz, Calif., and Spokane, Wash., records of who checked out what books are being purged from computers as soon as books are returned, so if federal agents ask for information, there will simply be none to give.

Some booksellers, too, are purging their computer files of anything that could be used as evidence of what their customers are buying.

The threat, according to booksellers and librarians, comes from the federal government and a provision of the USA Patriot Act in Section 215 that authorizes the FBI to obtain "certain business records" based on warrants from secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act courts, which under changes instituted by USA Patriot do not require that the government show probable cause.

The law, passed by Congress less than two months after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, also makes it illegal for a business — including libraries or bookstores — whose client records are demanded to tell anyone about it, even the person whose purchase or borrowing records are demanded.

Judith Krug of the American Library Association said the law not only threatens First Amendment rights, it undermines the ability of Americans to be responsible citizens by creating a sense of fear about seeking information the administration might not want them to have.

"It is in my mind the most important right we enjoy in the Constitution, because without the access to information we are incapable of governing ourselves," Krug said. "Without free access to information we do not have what we need to govern ourselves. Any attempt to withhold information and ideas from the American public strikes right at the heart of this Constitutional republic."

Formal Challenges

A bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., last month to exempt libraries and booksellers from the provisions of Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The bill has "about 70 co-sponsors, including a half-dozen Republicans," Sanders' chief of staff, Jeff Weaver said.

Under the bill, called the Freedom to Read Protection Act, bookstore and library records could still be sought by law enforcement, but only with evidence of probable cause.

"The Patriot Act basically amounts to a blank check for the FBI to receive the records of anybody they want to," Weaver said.

Though some booksellers have said they do not believe that the Justice Department sought the power to peruse Americans' reading records when USA Patriot was being drafted, Weaver said he was not so sure.

"It's difficult now to judge motivations, but the Justice Department has been quite hostile to attempts to change the law," he said. "Now that they have the powers, they don't seem to want to give them back."

Because of the secrecy provision of the law, no one outside the government knows how many times the powers have been used, if they have been used at all, to monitor the borrowing or book-buying records of any Americans, but several organizations have filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Justice Department to try to find out.

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