On Sept. 11, 2001, I was being interviewed in my office in the Queens Borough Public Library by a reporter from Newsweek. The next day, even as my staff and I fought our shock, horror and grief, we managed to open all but one of our 63 locations on time, and over the ensuing weeks we witnessed a remarkable occurrence: Library use increased significantly. People needed information to try to come to grips with this tragedy, and the library offered it without conditions or restrictions, whether their questions concerned Islamic fundamentalism or bus routes across lower Manhattan.
That fact makes Title II of the USA PATRIOT Act at once ironic and chilling. Those dreadful attacks, which drove people to the library, caused the federal government to pass a law that has the effect of discouraging people from using the library, even though it contains provisions preventing its use to limit First Amendment rights.
But the threat it poses is much greater than simply discouraging library use. The PATRIOT Act violates the professional ethics of all librarians, and it betrays our shared ideals as Americans. Consider just one element: its provision for enhanced surveillance procedures. This relaxes the requirements that allow federal or state authorities in terrorism or clandestine intelligence investigations to obtain an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which works in secret, to seize business records. It also broadens the definition of these records to an alarmingly vague “any tangible thing.”
At the UCLA Library, for example, virtually any type of document or record could be taken. That encompasses circulation records, items paged from the Southern Regional Library Facility, interlibrary loans, document delivery requests and reserves transactions. It covers catalog search and Web server logs, which detail activities by computer IP address; records of personalized services, such as online reference exchanges and user-established profiles in systems like the Melvyl Catalog; and Web browser caches, which show all the Web sites visited on that computer within a given time period. And it extends to personal information about users gathered by vendors of the thousands of electronic resources to which the library provides access.
Looking at the university as a whole, investigators can seize records of activities conducted at any computer on campus; research notes and reports; enrollment, payroll and personnel files; and medical records. Paper and computer records we keep in our homes are also at risk.
All of these were previously protected under state public records and privacy law. And the PATRIOT Act’s failure to require prior notice before records are taken endangers our constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
This threat to our basic civil liberties strikes at the very heart of the academic endeavor. Universities exist to provide students, faculty and scholars with the freedom to research, investigate, exchange ideas and question received wisdom on any subject, even those considered controversial, without threat of government surveillance or interference.
I know we must take action to protect our country from future attacks. But this overly broad law, which disregards the individual’s privacy rights and civil liberties, protects no one. Rather, it creates a new menace, one that is even more threatening because it exists within our borders, in our own courts and in the disguise of “security.”