Librarians take great care to protect the privacy of patrons, and to promote the freedom to read and view materials in an unrestricted manner. Generally, we despise censorship, and encourage citizens to fully exercise the rights granted them under the First Amendment. However, six years ago, the USA Patriot Act was passed and protecting patron’s privacy became more difficult. The 800+ page Patriot Act was haphazardly drafted and approved in only a few weeks after the 9/11 bombings. The Act is essentially an approved wish list from Federal law enforcement agencies to more easily circumvent the Constitution. Indeed, the implications of the modifications to existing laws that the Act amends are still not fully realized.
Recently, there have been numerous articles discussing the FBI’s abuse of National Security Letters (NSLs) as well as the USA Patriot Act and how it negatively impacts our way of life. Section 215 of the Patriot Act grants the FBI, and NSA enormous power to spy on citizens without warrants. It also makes it illegal for anyone served with a NSL to disclose that they were served to anyone else… Recipients are gagged forever. Overall, almost 150,000 NSLs have been issued. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft insisted that NSLs weren’t being abused, and that no libraries were served. We now know this to be a lie.
Last night, I watched a PBS special entitled, Security vs. Liberty: The Other War in which the only people who can legally speak of being served a NSL discussed what it was like. These four people are librarians from Connecticut who sued the Federal Government to keep their patron records confidential. These librarians are like rock stars in the library community for the courage they showed in challenging the NSL and for protecting a basic tenet of our profession, privacy. Due to their efforts, the Patriot Act was rewritten and parts were clarified. Before this, it was uncertain if someone issued, and gagged by a NSL could even seek counsel. This is a good start, however, most of the other parts of the Act were only made more restrictive. A condescending scrap thrown to the library community during the revision states that libraries are now exempt from NSLs… IF they don’t have electronic resources! I’m sure the eight libraries left in American that don’t use electronic resources are very happy about this.
Our basic civil liberties are hanging by a thread. Why are we so willing to forsake the very things that make us great for what amounts to negligible advances in security? This isn’t really America anymore if we sacrifice the basic principles that make us who we are. We have fundamentally changed, and not for the better allowing terrorists to dictate the shape of our society. I know of no words that better illustrate the sad state of affairs in contemporary America than those of Benjamin Franklin who said, “Those who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security.”
Our Government, spying on its own citizens through these twisted means, will not stop another terrorist attack. It might delay it, but won’t stop the inevitability. Sadly, when this happens again, I fear what’s left of the Bill of Rights will be desecrated for the mere hope of more security… I’m sure the FBI, and NSA will enthusiastically oblige. As Franklin pointed out, ultimately we will get exactly what we ask for.