March 5, 2005

Patriot Act warning makes Bettendorf librarian nervous

The Q.C. Times has a piece on the Quad Cities chapter of the ACLU requesting that the Bettendorf library post short notices warning patrons that provisions of the Patriot Act give federal agents the right to gather records of books and other materials they borrow, read their e-mails and access records of what websites they've visited, among other things, and makes it illegal for the library to reveal that the records have been requested.

Apparently, this flustered library director Faye Clow, who said deciding whether to post the notice was to her "a terrible choice."

We have people lobbying on the national level against parts of the Patriot Act," she said, referring to the American Library Association's office of intellectual freedom. "I try not to be blatantly political, and this seemed political to me."

She also worries that the signs may do more harm than good.

"My thought is the signs could have a chilling effect on people's willingness to use our materials and information," she said, adding that she doesn't believe any library has had to forfeit borrowing records to the federal government under the provision in the Patriot Act. "It exists that they could, but I don't believe it has happened."

Au contraire, Ms. Clow. You'd be subject to prosecution if you revealed that the Feds had requested records, but don't be too certain it hasn't happen.

The next day, at a judiciary committee hearing, Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh did throw a bone to librarians, noting that in "an informal survey of the field offices," Justice learned "that libraries have been contacted approximately 50 times, based on articulable suspicion or voluntary calls from librarians regarding suspicious activity." He noted that most such visits were in the context of ordinary criminal investigations and did not rely on the powers granted by Section 215.* He did not give specifics on searches of any other establishments.

Independent attempts to chronicle the frequency of records searches have proved inconclusive. Within months after Sept. 11, federal or local officials visited nearly 10 percent of the nation's public libraries "seeking Sept. 11-related information about patron reading habits," according to a University of Illinois survey. But since librarians are gagged under the act, it's not clear that these reports are accurate.

from the article "A Guide to the Patriot Act, Part 1" in Slate Magazine, October 2003. One would assume the number of requests by the Feds are higher by now.


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