Privacy at the Library

The Patriot Act, designed to help combat terrorism in the US, has many citizens worried about censorship and a loss of privacy. Vigilance certainly is warranted when it comes to ensuring Americans' precious freedoms. And that includes ongoing, thoughtful consideration of provisions designed to protect the country and its people - in this case, the Constitution's Fourth Amendment protection of citizens against unreasonable search and seizure.

Recently, a coalition of some 32 book publishers, librarians, authors, and booksellers asked Congress to modify a section of the Patriot Act that gives the FBI expanded powers to search business records to fight terrorism. (Before the act, the government had the freedom to conduct such searches of travel-related business records only, as mandated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.)

For booksellers and librarians, the Patriot Act goes too far: The government could technically obtain a special search warrant under FISA and inspect or seize their records (of customer purchases or borrowed books) without probable cause - and never reveal that the inspection occurred.

The coalition wants the law revised so that both a bookstore's sales records and library-card borrowing records would be subject to the legal standards in place for investigations before the Patriot Act was passed.

That would mean a library or bookstore could contest a subpoena for its records in an open court. A bill sponsored by Rep. Bernard Sanders (Ind.) of Vermont would do just that. His legislation now has 127 cosponsors in Congress, including 15 Republicans.

The Justice Department maintains all it wants is the ability to see what someone whom it has identified as a terrorist might be doing on a public computer at a library, or to find out what kinds of books were checked out there or bought at a bookstore. It could do that without the extreme steps now provided in the Patriot Act.

Allowing the Justice Department to do wide sweeps of public places like libraries may sound temporarily reasonable to counter a terrorist threat. But Congress still will need to maintain, and adjust if necessary, the balance between civil liberties with national security, even as Americans have a more wide-ranging and open debate on the Fourth Amendment.

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