Checking What You Check Out

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Patriot-Act opponents rally in Bloomington, Indiana

What makes librarians raise their voices above a whisper? Certain passages of the U.S.A. Patriot Act. Librarians are among the most vocal opponents of the law, taking particular exception to Section 215, which they claim makes it easier for the government to search library records. "A big part of the public library system was to sustain democracy so people could make up their own mind about things," says Carolyn Anthony, director of the Skokie Public Library near Chicago. "Aspects of the act compromise this."

Before the Patriot Act, authorities could examine library records only after proving in open court that there was probable cause to suspect that a crime had been committed. The Patriot Act gave the government wider leeway by expanding the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), legislation that created secret courts to review applications for domestic wiretaps and searches in the name of national security. Now the government needs merely to convince a FISA court that looking at book-borrowing histories or library Internet usage is relevant to an ongoing terrorist investigation, whether or not a crime has been committed. In addition, library employees are prohibited from revealing to anyone that a patron is under suspicion.

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Many librarians believe that the policy violates the right to privacy, a right they take seriously. The 64,000-member American Library Association passed a resolution opposing "any use of governmental power to suppress...or to intimidate individuals exercising free inquiry." They are also protesting in more subtle ways. Signs in the public libraries of Santa Cruz, Calif., warn that "records of the books and other materials you borrow from this library may be obtained by federal agents." At the end of each day, Schaumburg, Ill., library employees delete the names of those who have used computers. At a library in nearby Bridgeview, computer sign-up sheets have been eradicated altogether.

The Justice Department believes that librarians are overreacting. "I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding and a sense of unjustified hysteria," says Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh, who helped craft the act. Dinh says authorities have always been able to obtain subpoenas to search library records. For instance, a federal grand jury authorized searches in the mid-1990s to learn who had checked out books mentioned in the Unabomber's manifesto. Those subpoenas, however, were issued after officials provided a reasonable suspicion that the books were related to a committed crime.

It's not clear how often the government has asked to search library records since the enactment of the Patriot Act, but in a recent survey conducted by the Library Research Center at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, 545 of the 906 respondents said that in the year after the 9/11 attacks they had been visited by federal or local officials. But there is no evidence that the visits were connected to the Patriot Act, and some may have been routine searches related to local crimes. Meanwhile, not all librarians are leaving the stacks and taking to the streets. The survey showed that at 209 libraries, staff members voluntarily reported what they regarded as suspicious behavior by their patrons.