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Written by Christopher King
California Polytechnic State University
February, 2005

U.S. Patriot Act: Libraries Under Siege

They could be listening to your telephone conversations, watching as you go to the store for groceries, or even reading over your shoulder at the library. As citizens of the United States of America, we are slowly being stripped of our right to privacy by the government's strategy to fight the "war on terror." On October 26, 2001, Congress deemed it constitutional for government agencies to subject American citizens to criminal investigation without reason or probable cause. They call this the Patriot Act, and although the bill was rushed through Congress with very few members actually reading it, we as American citizens can now be subject to such harassment as wiretapping, and online surveillance as the government sees necessary. This 342-page document drafted by the first Bush Administration in response to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, elaborates on pre-existing terrorism laws to include domestic investigation. This grants federal and local law enforcement not only the power to eavesdrop on phone and internet usage, but to administer unauthorized searches, and gain full access to highly personal information such as financial; medical; and student records as well. Also, non-U.S.-citizens have the potential of being imprisoned indefinitely for six-month increments without trial based on suspicion alone ("The U.S. Patriot Act"). In addition to these provisions, the recently reelected Bush Administration is pushing for Patriot Act II to pass, which consists of more than 100 additional changes to the current bill. This would include granting "complete immunity for federal agents who conduct illegal searches, and the forced expatriation of any U.S. citizen who helps a terrorist organization" (qtd. in Zeljak 70). And yet, we wonder why the anti-American feeling seems to be wrapping the globe at a steady rate.

While the Patriot Act has successfully violated the privacy of American citizens in several ways, there is one that is particularly bothersome especially in the world of academia and scholarly research. I am referring to Section 215 of the bill that grants federal agencies full access to library and bookstore records. Although a court order is required for the FBI and other government agencies to seize books and records of library and bookstore patrons, the process of obtaining the order is done through a secretive court hearing (Reid 1). FBI can then sift through patron records at will if they feel the facilities are being used as a terrorist communication or research hub. One of the most disheartening things about this is the fact that the suspect never gets any notice that they are being investigated. I mean, we all want to be free from the anticipation of terrorism, but where, I ask, do we as American citizens draw the line? This is not only an invasion of privacy, but a blatant disregard for our constitutional rights as well. Section 215 of the U.S. Patriot Act is in direct violation of the First Amendment—Freedom of religion, speech, assembly, and the press—and should be extensively revised if not abolished all together.

The U.S. Patriot Act could potentially affect the way we conduct research in the future. For instance, making use of library databases simply to write this paper on privacy issues pertaining to the U.S. Patriot Act could quite honestly make someone feel rather uncomfortable or even slightly paranoid when merely trying to stay informed about the truths of certain issues and policies relating to the government. Not only that, but if an individual were conducting research on something that might contain some "questionable content," it could potentially put them at risk of being investigated. As students and professors alike, we should not have to perform our academic duties and responsibilities in fear, but rather use the tools available to us in libraries freely.

With advancements in Information Technology changing the way we retrieve content for various uses, we have become reliant on tools such as online databases, blogs, and RSS news feeds. While technologies like these make researching a more streamlined process, software companies are being put to work by the government to create applications that comply with the Patriot Act to serve as information watchdogs sniffing away for suspicious terrorist activity in the background. Two examples of companies taking part in this so-called "security measure," are SearchSoftwareAmerica and Innovative Systems, whose applications' main purpose is to "solve the inherent error and variation in name and address data and deliver high quality data integration, duplicate discovery, and relationship linking" (qtd. in Pace 1). Now, I realize that this may sound a bit foreign or too technical, but it's obvious that the goal of these programs is to seek out any irregularities in data that may be further investigated for terrorist activity. It is absurd to think that all this may be going on in the background while you are harmlessly going about your research in the library or online somewhere else. Head of Systems for North Carolina State University, Andrew K. Pace, states quite eloquently that, "the very security that protects us has the potential to work against us (1).

With all the negative factors at play here, it's easy to loose sight of any positive movement toward resolving this issue. One possible solution is a bipartisan bill known as the Security and Freedom Ensured Act (SAFE). Designed by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Larry Craig (R-ID), the bill will place some limitations on the U.S. Patriot Act that will make it more difficult for the FBI get their hands on library and bookstore records. The SAFE Act will ensure that no government agency violates the constitutional rights of American citizens while fighting the "war on terror" ("ALA Urges Support" 1). The American Library Association is in great support of this bill, and is also pulling together to create a petition to restore the security of library and bookstore records. The petition had more than 170,000 signatures as of September 29, 2004 (ALA News 1). Also, New York Federal Judge, Victor Marrero, recently struck down one provision of the Patriot Act pertaining to seizing records of an internet service provider. The FBI forbid the Internet service provider to inform its customers that their personal records had been detained, thus Marrero ruled the action unconstitutional and in violation of the customers' rights (Swartz 1). Although it's not a tremendous amount at the moment, these objections to the Patriot Act could definitely gain momentum and make a real difference as months go on.

Unfortunately, not everyone sees the U.S. Patriot Act as an unconstitutional violation of the rights of citizens. More specifically, some see Section 215 as a provision fit to prevent terrorism before starts. According to United States Representative Howard Coble, Section 215 has never been utilized to obtain library patron records (Coble 279). Representative Coble continued to say, "Should terrorists be able to use taxpayer-funded public library facilities to plot a major attack without fear they will be investigated by the FBI?" I believe Representative Coble has a valid point here; however, the minute those patron records are seized by the FBI, not only are terrorist threats eliminated, but our civil liberties as well.

It is our freedom, our right to be able to read and research whatever we desire without the fear and intimidation of the government's prying eyes lurking about behind the scenes. The U.S. Patriot Act, and more specifically Section 215 of the bill, violates our constitutional rights as American citizens. With the second wave of the Bush Administration already underway, there is action being taken to move Patriot Act II into place. If we do not wish to see any more of these outlandish policies passed in the future, we must do whatever necessary to change the status quo.


Coble, Howard. "Should the FBI Be Prohibited from Acquiring Patron's Records Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act? Con." Congressional Digest 83.9 (2004)..

D. L. W. "ALA Urges Support for the SAFE Act." School Library Journal 50.11 (2004).

Pace, Andrew K. "Technically Speaking." American Libraries 36.2 (2005).

Reid, Calvin. "Patriot Act Worries Publishers, Libraries." Publishers Weekly 1 Jul. 2002.

Swartz, Nikki. "Patriot Act Provision Ruled Unconstitutional." Information Management Journal 38.6 (2004).

"The U.S. Patriot Act and Government Actions that Our Civil Liberties." American Civil Liberties Union.

"Thousands Sign Reader-Privacy Petitions." American Libraries Nov. 2004.

Zeljak, Cathy. "The USA Patriot Act and Civil Liberties (Part II)." Problems of Post-Communism 51.3 (2004).

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