Summary and Conclusion

Enacted in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Patriot Act was never fully debated, and was rushed through Congress in 45 days. Among other things, the act authorizes indefinite detentions of immigrants; “sneak and peek” searches of citizens’ home or business without the their knowledge, and the use of “National Security Letters,” to allow FBI to search telephone, email, educational, library and bank records without a court order – i.e. without probable cause.

To say that this is a nightmare scenario in a democratic country would be an understatement. For librarians, this law is particularly odious because of its provisions that allow federal agents to obtain the record of what people read in libraries – without their knowledge – and with little or no judicial review. This creates a climate of fear and suspicion that tears at the very heart of intellectual freedom, without which the other basic civil rights of a democratic republic cannot long be maintained.

The Library Bill of Rights states in Article III “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.” And in Article IV, it says “Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.”

These two articles represent the core of the mission of libraries to safeguard the rights of all people to inform themselves, and express themselves to the fullest extent possible. Allowing people’s reading habits or opinions to place them under criminal suspicion without probable cause or judicial review is a recipe not only for abuse of individuals’ democratic rights, but it also inculcates the habit of self-censorship, which fosters servility and political oppression.

In this blog, I have begun to trace – in a qualitative way – the course of a developing threat to intellectual freedom and civil liberties, as expressed in the Patriot Act. My focus, of course, is on how this has affected libraries, and how librarians have tried to respond to these threats. One of the main lessons that can be drawn from studying this experience is that librarians did not ask to be placed in this position; rather, it has been forced upon them by political circumstances. Yet librarians – along with their allies among civil libertarians – were also uniquely qualified for the task. Librarians have faced these kinds of threats before, from the anti-communist hysteria of the Cold War, right through the ‘culture wars’ of the 1990s.

The first part of Article I of the Library Bill of Rights states, “Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves.” The resolve of this article reflects the cultural role that libraries play in fostering the growth of knowledge in a free society. Libraries are on the front line of culture, and are a basic resource for the constant renewal of freedom and enlightenment. That is why it has been so vital that librarians have taken seriously their role in defending against the predations of the Patriot Act.

The courage of librarians across the country in creating educational materials, speaking out in public forums, lobbying government, and mounting legal challenges have made possible significant public awareness of the need to reform, if not eliminate, the Patriot Act. The legal challenge mounted by the librarians at the Library Connection in Connecticut has shown that concerted action can be effective. Although the Patriot Act was renewed, public awareness has been raised, and the struggle to prevent further entrenchment of such threats to democratic freedoms continues. As the student posters in Paris of 1968 declared: Notre Lutte Continue! “Our Struggle Continues!”

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