Soapbox: Patriot Act in libraries

Signed into law in the post-911 blindness which ravaged our nation, the Patriot Act is consistently found to incorporate new and unexpected transgressions of constitutional law. Among the most appalling findings came after four Connecticut librarians sued the American government over its collection of patron records—records of who checked out which books—and its subsequent placement of gag orders on all librarians and libraries involved.

The gag order makes it a federal crime to disclose that the government, acting through the FBI, was searching for records in the first place. It was thus possible for the head of the FBI to lie to Congress in 2006, stating with no grey language that no such appropriation of private records was occurring or would ever occur.

No formally recognized courts were aware of the seizure of documents, because the FBI made their demands through National Security Letters. These NSLs were originally used to obtain information records, i.e. phone or text records, from foreign entities with a preemption for the need for court approval. There were seldom used at all until the events of 2001 catalyzed the creation of the Patriot Act, and decades would pass before Snowden would pull the veil off from the resulting bulk domestic data collection.

The legal battle between the librarians, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the US government simply collapsed weeks after the Patriot Act was renewed by Congress. The government had stalled past the point where it needed to be frightened by the truth, and simply rescinded the unnecessary gag order on the Connecticut librarians.

Wondering if your own librarians have been manhandled by the NSA? If they have, they cannot legally tell you that they have, but they can legally tell you if they have not. Some libraries across the country resorted to leaving apparent signs by the front doors which state something along the lines of the FBI has not searched us today. Watch for this sign to be removed.

What does this legal dance on eggshells show us about the current state of domestic affairs? Firstly, it shows that without the likes of Snowden, no one would ever have a clue about the NSA’s and the Patriot Act’s excesses unless they were currently under fire by either. Of course this is a dangerous situation, where the only ones speaking out against a thing are those who face it, consequently labeled conspiracy theorists by those who are in no immediate danger.

Secondly, it reminds those who will listen that the current policy of suffocating potential terrorists is done by putting the whole world in a tourniquet. What kind of freedom of expression can there be when the reading choices of a populace are monitored and acted upon? And why is it that the American government seems so apt at taking leaves from books in the vein of “Fahrenheit 451” or “Brave New World,” books marketed in the bookstore’s “things democratic governments shouldn’t do,” section?

The average John Doe has a role to play in all of this, of course. Where a librarian is forced under threat of persecution to not disclose that they have been unconstitutionally searched, the library goer has an equal and opposite responsibility to assure that the truth gets out. Ask your local librarians if they have been searched by the FBI.

“I can’t talk to you about that,” is as close to a “yes” as can legally be given, and this should be noted. Pushing further than this might make an individual grow wary, afraid as they are of government attempts to break their resolve, so a certain polite understanding of a librarians limitations is essential. If it appears that such library or librarian is acting suspicious, spread the word. Though they cannot speak, librarians still wish to be heard.