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Magazines > Information Today > September 2003
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Information Today
Vol. 20 No. 8 — September 2003
OPINION
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. 11, 2001.

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 legislation—about 17 months after the PATRIOT Act went into effect—he said that in an anonymous survey, 175 libraries reported already having been visited by federal law enforcement agents.

"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 terrorism.

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 status."

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 kaser@infotoday.com.
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