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Libraries, Bookstores, and the Freedom to Read Protection Act

Alert: If you are a librarian, the alternative press needs your stories of the government's seeking information on library users.


Santa Cruz branches tell patrons that FBI may spy on them (from a March 10, 2004, article in the San Francisco Chronicle)

Current threat to First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights

Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act extends the capabilities of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) by enabling anyone within the FBI down to the rank of Assistant Special Agent in Charge to request a court order for tangible items sought for an investigation "to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities." The judge must give permission if an agent has so certified.

For example, it permits the FBI director to seek records from bookstores and libraries of books that a person has purchased or read, or of his or her activities on a library's computer. It also places a gag order to prevent anyone from disclosing that they have been ordered to produce such documents.

This change puts people at risk for exercising their free speech rights to read, recommend, or discuss a book, to write an email, or to participate in a chat room (see story below). It also denies booksellers and library personnel the free speech right to inform anyone, including an attorney, that the FBI has asked for someone's reading list. The FBI no longer must meet the test that "there are specific and articulable facts giving reason to believe that the person to whom the records pertain is a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power."

The new law in action:
Santa Fe Police Detain Library Patron over Chat-Room Visit

A St. John's College Library visit by a former public defender was abruptly interrupted February 13 when city police officers arrested him about 9 p.m. at the computer terminal he was using, handcuffed him, and brought him to the Santa Fe, New Mexico, police station for questioning by Secret Service agents from Albuquerque. Andrew J. O'Conner, 40, who was released about five hours later, said in the February 16 Santa Fe New Mexican, "I'm going to sue the Secret Service, Santa Fe Police, St. John's, and everybody involved in this whole thing."

According to O'Connor, the agents accused him of making threatening remarks about President George W. Bush in an Internet chat room. Admitting he talked politics face-to-face in the library with a woman who was wearing a "No war with Iraq" button, O'Connor recalled saying that Bush is "out of control," but that "I'm allowed to say all that. There is this thing called freedom of speech." He also speculated that the FBI might have been observing him because of his one-time involvement in a pro-Palestinian group in Boulder, Colorado.

Earlier on the same day O'Connor was questioned, officials at St. John's-as well as at the College of Santa Fe and Santa Fe Community College-issued warnings to students and faculty that the FBI had been alerted to the presence of "suspicious" people on campus within the past four weeks.

Concern about threats to individual privacy under the USA PATRIOT Act has prompted New Mexico legislators in both houses to propose resolutions urging state police not to help federal agents infringe on civil rights. The resolutions also encourage libraries to post prominent signage warning patrons that their library records are subject to federal scrutiny without their permission or knowledge.

Source: American Libraries, the magazine of the American Library Association

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