The Role of Librarians in Challenges to the USA PATRIOT Act

June 16, 2012

Librarians and library associations have been outspoken critics of the expanded surveillance powers granted law enforcement with passage of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001. Librarians’ organized protests have given impetus to community and legislative efforts to curtail the expanded power, and librarians have also had a small role in lawsuits challenging the Act. The focus of librarians’ concern has been nondisclosure requirements in section 215 and the general relaxing of standards and shrinking of judicial review of applications for searches and seizures. Librarians have yet to identify publicly any particular uses of the Act against libraries, though they have reported some law enforcement requests for library records since September 11.┬áLibrarians continue to assert that the threat of government surveillance creates a chilling effect on library use. Attorney General John Ashcroft has responded by declassifying information on how many times libraries were searched under section 215 and by announcing that the section has been used zero times in libraries. American Library Association President Carla Hayden expressed surprise at the number and pushed Congress to amend the Act to eliminate unnecessary intrusions on civil liberties. Others have taken note that section 215 is only one of the USA PATRIOT Act provisions that lower standards of access to library records.