[Journal-News (Westchester County, NY)](1999-Current)
  Home > NewsBank Full-Text Newspapers  Edit Search   Help  

    Record 4 of 70

Journal News, The (Westchester County, NY)

April 13, 2003

Library provision in Patriot Act under fire

Author: Susan Elan; Staff
The Journal News

Section: News
Page: 2B

Index Terms:
GWP- Westchester and Putnam

Estimated printed pages: 4

Article Text:

Groups say search through records unconstitutional

Susan Elan

The Journal News

The nation's libraries and booksellers, joined by civil libertarians and members of Congress, are calling for repeal of a provision of the USA Patriot Act that gives federal agents the power to investigate library, bookstore and other personal records without a traditional search warrant.

"The Bush administration says the provision only applies to terrorists, but ordinary citizens are affected, too," said Maurice Freedman, president of the American Library Association and director of the Westchester Library System. "It breaches the trust people have in their local public library."

Under Section 215 of the 340-page Patriot Act, which sets new legal standards for the federal government to go through library and bookstore records, staff who reveal that an investigation is under way can be arrested for committing a felony.

The 64,000-member American Library Association passed a resolution in late January that calls the provision a "danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users" and urges Congress to change sections of it that "threaten or abridge the rights of inquiry and free expression."

Nationwide, some librarians have begun shredding paper records, cleaning out computer drives and posting warning signs at their checkout counters in anticipation of sweeps by federal agents.

Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo called such measures "absurd." The legislation "doesn't apply to the average American," he said. "It's only for people who are spying or members of a terrorist organization."

Despite reassurances, 65 members of Congress have signed legislation proposed by Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, designed to exempt libraries and booksellers from provisions of the Patriot Act. At this point, there is no companion legislation in the Senate.

Rep. Eliot Engel, the Bronx Democrat who supported the Patriot Act when it was signed by Congress in the weeks following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said the library provision "bothered me from day one" because it made it much easier to obtain a search warrant and to do so in secrecy.

To obtain a warrant, government agents appeal to a special court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to deal with spy cases. Unlike in the past, however, government lawyers working under the Patriot Act don't have to show "probable cause" that an individual has committed a crime or is connected to a foreign power to obtain a warrant to seize records. They only have to convince the court, whose proceedings are secret, that searching the library records is "relevant" to an ongoing terrorism investigation.

This arrangement "violates the privacy rights that the nation depends on," said Jeffrey Fogel, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City.

Engel, a co-sponsor of Sanders' proposed "Freedom to Read Protection Act," agrees. Under the library provision of the Patriot Act, "The relevant standard to obtain a warrant is so low that it gives the government carte blanche to investigate people for the books they read or buy, the Web sites they visit or even the letters they write to the editors of newspapers," Engel said.

In the past, libraries could move against a subpoena and employees were not committing a felony if they told a person the FBI was going after their library records, Freedman said. The Patriot Act puts in place a gag order. "It makes a mockery of due process and the First Amendment guarantee of privacy that library users once enjoyed," he said.

In addition to violating the Constitution, Freedman said, Section 215 of the Patriot Act is pointless.

"Fundamental to the whole argument is the implicit belief that the books a person reads somehow tell how the person is going to act," he said. "Millions read `Mein Kampf' but it did not make them Nazis. If I read about communism, or Islam, or terrorism, it doesn't mean I'm going to convert to Islam, become a communist or support terrorists."

But Corallo, the Justice Department spokesman, said the measures and the secrecy are needed.

"No one thinks that libraries should be a safe haven for terrorists," he said, adding, "You can't tell the bad guys they're being surveilled."

No one knows exactly how many libraries have been asked to turn over records because the law forbids reporting any surveillance. Nevertheless, in response to a survey by the University of Illinois answered by 906 public libraries, 178 reported they had received visits last year from the FBI.

The same survey showed that the staffs at 219 libraries had cooperated with requests for information from a broad range of law enforcement agencies, while staffs at 225 libraries said they had not.

Freedman believes the number of requests for information from law enforcement are probably higher than those reflected in the study. But librarians may have avoided answering because they were unwilling to break the law and go to jail, he said.

Reach Susan Elan at selan@thejournalnews.com or 914-696-8538.

Copyright (c) The Journal News. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co., Inc. by NewsBank, inc.
Record Number: wst2003041411093781