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Judy Platt

Judy Platt

Posted: October 19, 2009 08:23 AM

As Congress Prepares to Reauthorize the Patriot Act, Reader Privacy Must be Protected

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While I love to talk books with friends and colleagues, reading for me is a private and personal matter. Government agents secretly privy to what I read might be a fact of life in a dictatorship but it isn't anything I need to worry about in this country. We have a First Amendment that entitles us to read and think freely. Right?

In fact, that First Amendment right to read without the government looking over my shoulder may need some shoring up. In the aftermath of 9/11 and passage of the Patriot Act, (a piece of legislation so massive that not one member of Congress had read it before the vote) many of us in the book community, led by the American Library Association and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, became aware that portions of the new law, specifically Section 215 and the new authority to issue National Security Letters, posed a serious threat to reader privacy. The Patriot Act gave the FBI virtually unlimited ability to search library and bookstore records of people not even suspected of terrorist activities, with little oversight by the courts. Libraries and bookstores targeted by such searches would be forbidden to speak to anyone about them, ever. Five years ago, ALA and the American Booksellers Association, joined by PEN American Center and the Association of American Publishers, formed the Campaign for Reader Privacy to raise the alarm in Washington and throughout the country that precious reading privacy rights were in danger. ALA and ABA rolled out a petition campaign and succeeded in collecting more than 200,000 signatures in libraries and bookstores across the country. The petitions were presented to members of Congress along with the message that a lot of people want their reading habits kept private.

If you think the FBI hasn't got time for fishing expeditions to find out who's reading what, think again. Five years ago, a patron of a small rural library in Whatcom County, Washington, found anti-American quotes written in the margins of a biography of Osama bin Laden and notified the FBI, who turned up at the library demanding the names of every patron who had borrowed the book. The library director's refusal to turn over the records, which are protected by state library confidentiality laws, without a search warrant or subpoena and her principled defense of her patrons' privacy in the face of a subsequently issued grand jury subpoena (later withdrawn) earned her the 2005 PEN/Newman's Own First Amendment Award. At the time it was noted that had the FBI returned with a Section 215 order instead of a grand jury subpoena, the library would not have been able to challenge the request in court and information on dozens of innocent people would still be residing in FBI files.

FBI attempts at library surveillance did not originate with the Patriot Act. Between 1973 and the late 1980s the FBI operated a secret counterintelligence operation called the Library Awareness Program. They were particularly interested in what Soviet bloc citizens were reading. Their incursions extended to bookstores, too. In at least one instance, an independent bookseller in Pennsylvania was visited by the FBI wanting to know the whereabouts -- including the names of the purchasers -- of three copies she had ordered of a new book by an unknown author: Tom Clancy's Hunt for Red October. The Library Awareness Program was one of the primary reasons that virtually every state in the Union enacted library record privacy statutes. Those state privacy laws are now trumped by the Patriot Act.

Over the past five years we've made some significant progress on the Patriot Act. While we still haven't gotten the most important protection -- requiring that what the FBI is looking at be connected to suspected terrorism or espionage -- the Inspector General of the Justice Department is now directed to look at how the law has been used by the FBI. His reports have documented widespread abuse.

Three provisions of the Patriot Act, including Section 215 will expire at the end of this year and Congress is working on reauthorization legislation. On October 8 the Senate Judiciary Committee gave us half-a-loaf. In approving a bill that extends Section 215 for another four years, the Committee set a higher standard that will require the FBI to show a connection to someone suspected of terrorism or espionage before they can get library records. But they failed to provide those same protections for bookstore records. Readers out there need to make it clear to their members of Congress and Senators that the privacy of what they read is non-negotiable and that they're entitled to that privacy whether the books they read are borrowed or bought.