The type of intrigue that usually is the provenance of spy novels and conspiracy theories has irked local librarians.
With the passing of the "Patriot Act" in October of 2001, a month after the Sept. 11 attacks, federal agencies' ability to legally and covertly gather information on citizens has been greatly expanded, including governmental access to what people read from public libraries.
Last week, the Union City Friends of the Library delivered a letter to the office of Rep. Bob Menendez (D-13th Dist.) officially protesting governmental access to what has long been considered private information. The letter also urged the congressman to "co-sponsor the Freedom to Read Protection Act introduced recently by Congressman Bernie Sanders of Vermont."
Joel Barkin, press secretary for Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), in a telephone interview last week, explained the genesis of the Freedom to Read Protection Act. Said Barkin, "We introduced the legislation a little over a month ago. It included 75 bipartisan signatures. The reason we introduced it was that we were approached by many librarians in Vermont. Section 2:15 of the Act affects libraries and booksellers."
The Patriot Act both permits law-enforcement access to library and bookstore records, and forbids the library to disclose to the public such inquiries. It is this last provision that most worries librarians throughout the country.
According to Anthony Squire, vice president of the board of Union City Friends of the Library, "Specifically, section 2:15 of the Partiot Act applies to 'business records.' The government has a very loose definition of this and it allows them to request 'any tangible thing,' which means 'any records.' What makes this a real area of concern is that the government does not have to have probable cause. This directly violates the Fourth Amendment of the Federal Constitution."
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) web site, "Many parts of this sweeping legislation take away checks on law enforcement and threaten the very rights and freedoms that we are struggling to protect. For example, without a warrant and without probable cause, the FBI now has the power to access your most private medical records, your library records, and your student records... and can prevent anyone from telling you it was done."
Said Anthony Squire, vice president of the Union City Friends of the Library, "The Patriot Act has nothing to do with patriotism. Under the Patriot Act, the definition of 'terrorism' is so broad that literally anything could be construed as 'terrorism.' Let's say you go to a library and take out a book on Timothy McVeigh [the since-executed bomber of the Murrah Federal Building bombing in 1996] and the Oklahoma City bombing, because you just have an interest in it. You could be singled out by the government. This is concerning people."
Also, according to Squire, the Patriot Act was scheduled to be removed from the books at an unspecified future date, but Senator Orrin Hatch has introduced legislation that will make the USA Patriot Act a permanent law. Said Hatch in a statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee, "Despite the dire predictions of some extremist groups, the Patriot Act has not eroded the civil liberties that we hold dear as Americans. On the contrary, the Patriot Act is enabling the Justice Department, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to save American lives and protect what is perhaps the most important civil liberty: the freedom from future terrorist attacks."
In Jersey City
Last year, the Jersey City Public Library formulated a policy regarding patron records, said Cynthia Harris, manager of the New Jersey Room of the Main Branch of the library on Jersey Avenue.
"There are seven points in the staff guidelines for responding to law enforcement officers' requests for access to patron records or library computers," said Harris, adding that any inquiry for library records would need a warrant.
In the seven-point staff instruction list developed by the library, workers are instructed to remain calm and courteous at all times, request and copy credentials from the requesting officer, and contact the library administrators for further instructions. Library officials will notify the library's attorneys.
Library workers are instructed to give the law enforcement officer an instruction packet, which includes a copy of NJSA 18A:73-43.2 (N.J. Confidentiality of Library Record Laws). According to the state law, library records containing names or other details regarding library users are confidential except in cases where the information is required for the operation of the facility, requested by the user, or pursuant to a subpoena issued by a court or court order.
"The library Board of Trustees made this policy on Sept. 10, 2002, almost a year to the day of Sept. 11," said Harris.
In addition, Harris said that the library's data storage system for books being taken out is limited to saving the name of the last person to take out the book.
"If a person takes and book out and returns it, the name of the person who took it out before is erased," said Harris.
Harris added that since the passing of the Patriot Act, no law enforcement officials have requested information from the Jersey City Public Library.
Union City Library Director William Breedlove was effusive in a recent telephone interview when asked about the Patriot Act and its effect on libraries.
Said Breedlove, "We've had no contact with the federal government in our libraries at this point, but our Board of Trustees did meet in March to discuss it, and we voted to put warning signs next to the computers in our libraries. The sign will advise patrons that the library is complying with the U.S.A. Patriot Act and direct them to the desk for further information." Continued Breedlove, "I think it's a violation of the Constitution, pure and simple. I am strongly opposed to it."
Interestingly, while Breedlove states that the Union City library hasn't had any contact with the federal government, the very nature of the 2:15 provision of the Patriot Act means that no one at the library would have any idea that their records were being scanned.
Said Barkin, "While we think that the effort to go after terrorists is necessary, we don't believe it is necessary to infringe on the constitutional rights of American citizens."