Sound Off for the Freedom to Read
By Dick Kaser
It's a sad day when the U.S. Congress needs to consider a bill called the
Freedom to Read Protection Act. But such a measure (HR 1157) is actually before
Congress. Well, it's at least before two House committees.
Introduced last March, this bill would exempt libraries and bookstores from
some of the more onerous provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, passed hurriedly
and without full public debate a few weeks after the shocking events of Sept.
As it stands, libraries and bookstores are required to comply, under section
215 of the PATRIOT Act, in releasing information to authorities about what
their patrons and customers have been reading.
Those requesting the information are authorized to do so in the interests
of countering terrorism. But in making their requests, they do not need to
go before a judge and present evidence that terrorism is actually suspected.
Furthermore, they are not required to report publicly, even at a statistical
level, on the extent and nature of these clandestine activities.
To top it all off, librarians and bookshop owners are not permitted to reveal
whether or not a request to check up on someone's book-buying or reading habits
has been made.
So no one knows how many of these surreptitious requests have occurred.
When Rep. Bernard Sanders ofVermont introduced the legislationabout
17 months after the PATRIOT Act went into effecthe said that in an anonymous
survey, 175 libraries reported already having been visited by federal law enforcement
"Many libraries and booksellers," he said at the time, "now fear that patrons
have begun to self-censor their library use and book purchases due to fears
of government surveillance."
That's something that should never happen in America.
If passed into law, the Freedom to Read Protection Act would, by amending
the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, effectively exempt libraries
and bookstores (but not other institutions and businesses) from the PATRIOT
Act's requirement to secretly supply information about patrons and customers
without due process of law.
Amending the 1978 law would also require the Attorney General to report to
pertinent congressional committees twice a year on the number of requests made
to organizations under section 215 of the PATRIOT Act as well as report whether
or not the exercise of these broad powers had actually been effective in countering
These requirements all sound fair and consistent with America's check-and-balance
system of government. And even those who believe that any means justify the
good cause of opposing terrorists should not see significant reasons to object
to these reporting provisions.
It's now been 6 months since the Freedom to Read Protection Act was introduced
with the endorsement of 23 congressional co-sponsors. In the interim, more
than 100 more representatives have added their names to the co-sponsors' list.
To see if your representative is supporting the right to read without fear
that the government is looking over your shoulder, go to the Library of Congress'
Thomas site (http://thomas.loc.gov). Search for bill HR 1157, and click on "check
In respect for 9/11 and in honor of the American way of life that was attacked
that day, I've written my congressional representative to encourage action
on this important measure. I invite you to join me in notifying Congress that
the liberty of reading is not one of the things we are willing to sacrifice
for the war on terror.
Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.'s vice president of
content. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.