Taking Liberties: The War on Terror and the Erosion of American Democracy

By Susan N. Herman | Go to book overview
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7.
The Patriot Act and Library/Business Records

If the lady from Toledo can be required to disclose what she read
yesterday and what she will read tomorrow, fear will take the
place of freedom in the libraries, bookstores, and homes of the
land
.—Justice William O. Douglas (1953)1

Revised Patriot Act Will Make It Illegal to Read Patriot Act.—The
Onion (2003)


American Librarians

It was probably predictable that librarians would be among the first to recognize how great a threat the post-9/11 surveillance regime poses to our First Amendment traditions as well as to our privacy. Among the framers of the Constitution were dedicated librarians. In 1731, Benjamin Franklin convinced his friends to pool their book collections to start the Library Company of Philadelphia, said to be the country’s first subscription library.2 Franklin was so widely admired that a town in Massachusetts decided to name itself in his honor and asked him to bless their choice by donating a church bell. Instead, he sent a crate of books, declaring that “sense” is preferable to “sound.” The town of Franklin claims to have instituted the first American public library when it voted in 1790 to make the books its namesake had provided available to all residents for free.3 Thomas Jefferson, a famously prodigious reader, maintained the largest private collection of books in the country. After the British burned the Library of Congress during the War of 1812, the library was restocked with books from Jefferson’s collection.4

The twenty-first-century librarians of the American Library Association (ALA), custodians of this intellectual tradition, passed a resolution in January 2003 condemning the Patriot Act’s threat to ideas, the fuel of democracy.5 The ALA, which has over 60,000 members, is the oldest library association in the world. Its policy is to oppose “any use of governmental

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