What Are You Reading?

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By Bernie Sanders

A half a century ago, George Orwell used the famous phrase "Big Brother is watching you" in his novel 1984. Today, under the provisions of the USA Patriot Act, Big Brother will indeed be watching us every time we use a public library. Or buy a book.

President Bush signed the legislation into law more than a year ago in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11. There is no doubt that we must be diligent in protecting our citizens from another terrorist attack. But the threat of terrorism should not be used as an excuse for the government to intrude on our most cherished constitutional and civil rights.

Proposed remedies should not be more dangerous to our social fabric than the problem they are supposed to protect us against.

The word "patriot" in the Patriot Act is an acronym that spells out as "Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism."

Libraries and bookstores have always been a source of knowledge and information in this country. The right to read without the fear of government surveillance is a cornerstone of our democracy. Freedom of the press means nothing without a corresponding freedom to read. Open and democratic debate is impossible without free and open access to diverse views and a broad array of information.

The Patriot Act expanded police monitoring and investigation of our libraries and booksellers, greatly increasing the reach of federal authorities. Under the act, investigators are authorized to seek a search warrant for "any tangible things" in a library or bookstore, a category that easily includes book circulation or purchase records, library papers, floppy disks, and computer hard drives. This legislation also enables the FBI to require libraries to turn over library circulation records, patron registration information, and Internet use records.

In the past, librarians and booksellers have always been willing to assist law enforcement officials when the courts deemed their assistance necessary. But until recently, the government could not go on fishing expeditions by sifting through the borrowing records of libraries. Formerly, an FBI agent was required to provide specific evidence to show "probable cause" in justifying why a search warrant was needed for a criminal investigation.

Under the Patriot Act, an agent must explain only why he or she believes that the records "may" be related to an ongoing terrorism or intelligence investigation before being allowed to get a search warrant. This significantly curtails privacy protections, for it dramatically lowers the threshold, from requiring evidence to merely stating a personal belief.

Internet access and e-mail, which in our age are so central to communication, are also affected by the new law.

After obtaining a warrant, federal authorities will be able to track all the Web sites people visit from library computers and obtain their e-mail addresses and the addresses of all with whom they communicate. The authorities can monitor e-mail correspondence as well -- all this without a library being able to inform its patrons that such surveillance is taking place. Even individuals not under suspicion could have their activities tracked if they use a library computer that is monitored.

The Patriot Act also exacerbates the threat to individual liberty and privacy and should be of special concern to librarians. Under this legislation, librarians will be under a "gag order," punishable by law, that will prevent them from informing library patrons that their records were turned over to the FBI or are subject to ongoing monitoring.

Members of Congress of all political persuasions have asked the Justice Department to show how it is using its new powers. But the response has been frightening: Most of the information regarding libraries and bookstores has been deemed "confidential" and has not been supplied to Congress.

Nor have national organizations filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act been able to obtain statistical information regarding how many times the government has used its expanded wiretap authorities under the Patriot Act. (An informal survey done by the University of Illinois found that 83 libraries across the county have been visited by authorities since the September 11 attacks.)

Libraries serve many people, both those who cannot afford to buy books and those for whom shared community resources make it possible to do serious research or expand their intellectual horizons. For those who do not have a computer or cannot afford the cost of Internet access at home -- from $250 to $600 a year -- libraries are critical to their access to electronic information and communications. Today, many librarians fear that their patrons have already begun to self-censor their library use due to fear of government surveillance.

In Congress, working with other concerned members, I will introduce legislation that will exempt libraries and booksellers from those parts of the Patriot Act that infringe on our constitutional rights.

At the same time, we will propose strengthening Congress' oversight role over the Patriot Act to ensure that those who use libraries remain free from all unnecessary government surveillance into their personal lives and reading habits.

Bernie Sanders represents Vermont as an independent in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Originally published on January 19, 2003 in the Baltimore Sun. Reprinted with permission from the author.