In late 2002 President Bush signed the USA Patriot Act (AL, Dec. 2001, p. 12-13). I fear that this legislation, passed in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, curtails some of our most precious First Amendment rights. Its chilling impact on privacy rights is particularly troublesome for libraries and librarians across the country.
There is no doubt that we must be diligent in protecting our citizens from another terrorist attack. But the threat of terrorism should not be used as an excuse for the government to intrude on our most cherished constitutional and civil rights. Proposed remedies should not be more dangerous to our social fabric than the problem they are supposed to protect us against.
One of the most troubling aspects of the Patriot Act is the expansion of police monitoring and investigation of our libraries and booksellers. The right to read without the fear of government surveillance is a cornerstone of our democracy. Freedom of the press means nothing without a correlative freedom to read.
The Patriot Act greatly expanded the reach of federal authorities. It authorizes investigators to seek a search warrant for "any tangible things" in a library or bookstore, a category that easily includes book circulation records or purchases, and library papers, diskettes, and computer hard drives. The legislation also enables the FBI to require libraries to turn over library circulation records, patron registration information, and Internet use records.
In the past, librarians and booksellers have always been willing to help law enforcement officials when the courts deemed their assistance necessary. But until now, the government could not go on fishing expeditions by sifting through the borrowing records of libraries. Formerly, an FBI agent was required to provide specific evidence to show "probable cause" in justifying a search warrant for a criminal investigation. Under the Patriot Act, an agent must only explain why the records "may" be related to an ongoing terrorism or intelligence investigation.
Internet access and e-mail, which in our age are so central to communication, are also affected by the new law. After obtaining a warrant, federal authorities will be able to track all the Web sites people visit from library computers and to monitor e-mail--all without a library being able to inform patrons that such surveillance is taking place. …