Since the introduction of the Patriot Act, U.S. officials have had the right to check library records as part of an investigation. Attorney General John Ashcroft recently stated that there have not been any invocations in this part of the act. This statement, intended to quell widespread criticism, had instead the adverse effect. So why have the rule at all?
Section 215 of the Act, which allows background checks involving library records, has often been referred to as one of the many examples where the policy restricts civil liberties without doing any good. In addition, library officials cannot tell patrons that government officials have checked their records.
The main flaw of the premise remains that terrorists or other “evildoers” will hardly go to public libraries in their quest to overthrow our civilization. Meanwhile, the records of other patrons in library systems, including the USF library, are accessible to government officials for perusal without the patrons knowing if and when such checks occur.
Booksellers, publishers and especially librarians have taken offence to the policy. Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, said to Publisher Weekly: “The FBI has a history, which Attorney General Ashcroft is ignoring, of violating civil liberties.”
The same article also reported that while on a tour through the United States to gain support for the Patriot Act and the upcoming introduction of Patriot Act II, Ashcroft went so far as to say “no offense to the American Library Association, but we just don’t care.”
Such statements only strengthen the impression that the policy undermines the right to free access of information in public libraries for U.S. citizens, especially those that lack the funds to otherwise gain access to such information and literature.
The war on terrorism should not be an excuse for the Patriot Act. Therefore, the introduction of new policies should be watched carefully and the existing ones should be amended so freedoms are not limited.