Librarians are not known for fueling dissent, but they're on target in criticizing a provision of the 2001 USA Patriot Act that allows easy access to their records by federal agents.
A critical study of this antiterrorist law, released this week by the American Library Association, will help bolster efforts to exempt libraries if the law is renewed - something Congress is currently considering doing, since the law expires Dec. 31.
When the controversial legislation was approved shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Congress itself acknowledged that some of the law's provisions significantly increased government police powers and that this would not sit well with many citizens.
So it built in a sunset rule for the law. It hoped that time and experience would reveal the best balance between the necessity to investigate a terrorist enemy - e.g., someone issuing orders for suicide bombers from a library Internet computer - and the Fourth Amendment's guarantee that all Americans be secure "against unreasonable searches and seizures."
Librarians believe the sun has set. The Patriot Act allows federal agents to secretly obtain business documents and files, including library records, by getting orders from an administrative court within the Justice Department. The traditional way is for federal agents to ask for a warrant from an impartial federal judge or grand jury.
The House of Representatives last week voted 238-187 - with 38 Republicans joining in - to deny funds to the Justice Department to conduct records searches in libraries unless it has a warrant from a judge or grand jury. The Senate has not voted on such a proposal, but it would do well to follow the House.
The White House wants the act renewed and made permanent with its current provisions, and with greater subpoena power for the Justice Department. It makes the case that, to date, bipartisan congressional oversight of the administration's use of the act hasn't resulted in the fundamental attack on American liberties feared by opponents. That good behavior, however, isn't enough to safeguard a basic right. A librarian should be required to comply with the act only when ordered to by an impartial judge.
Renewal of the Patriot Act is a catalyst for an epic debate on what it means to be a democracy in an age of terror. In joining this debate, librarians provide a service every bit as important as dispensing books.