Pitco library wary of USA Patriot Act
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Local library officials are wary of complying with a law that allows federal agents to seize library computers and records to investigate terrorism suspects.
The USA Patriot Act allows federal agents to confiscate all computers and servers in a library as part of an investigation without first asking a judge for a subpoena, which was a requirement before the act was passed. President Bush signed the act into law on Oct. 26, 2001, following the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.
“It’s a knee-jerk reaction,” said John Wilkinson, president of the Pitkin County Library Board. “Now we’re seeing how it has abridged personal freedoms we hold dear – how this has abridged some of those rights and protections.”
Wilkinson said the act infringes on the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. The Patriot Act could have a chilling effect on library patrons who want to do Internet research at the library or check out books on controversial topics, he said.
Some libraries around the country are shredding documents to prevent any seizures of records. At the Pitkin County Library there are no documents to shred, since the library has been using the same computer system since 1987, said library director Kathy Chandler.
The library’s computer system doesn’t keep track of what books a patron has checked out after the book is returned, she said, so there is no running list of which residents have checked out books in the past. If library officials were forced to comply with an investigation, they would only be able to determine who had books currently checked out.
“We’ve always had it that way to protect people’s privacy,” Chandler said. “Most companies who set up software for library computers do it that way because they get suggestions from library staff. People need to be able to have confidence in checking things out and find information when they need it, and not worrying that the government is delving into what they’re reading.”
Although the computer system doesn’t file books checked out in the past, seized library computers might show Internet research, Wilkinson said.
“You could be looking for information on Baghdad, say for folk stories or historic items,” he said. “That might be enough in the mind of homeland security to investigate that further. It abridges our First Amendment freedom of speech.”
Chandler and fellow librarian Martha Durgy said they understand why federal agents might want to investigate records on a specific basis, but said they’re uncomfortable with the precedent that would set.
“The American Library Association is always fighting to hold that line because of a slippery slope motion,” Chandler said. She said if federal agents ever did approach the Pitkin County Library about an investigation, they’d have to jump through all necessary hoops before proceeding.
“I’d definitely call the county attorney and see if I had to hand things over,” she said.
Wilkinson was part of a group that went to Washington, D.C., last month as part of National Legislative Day. He said he mainly spoke to representatives about the Patriot Act having no congressional oversight in place.
“It’s very dangerous that [homeland security] doesn’t have to report their actions to Congress,” he said. Wilkinson has been president of the Pitkin County Library Board for three years and on the board of trustees since 1995.
Chandler cites this quote from Harry Truman when referring to the Patriot Act:
“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”
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