ACLU of Florida Urges Libraries to Warn Patrons of Government's New Domestic Spying Powers

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
July 30, 2003 12:00 am

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MIAMI – The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida today urged librarians statewide to post placards in libraries that warn the public about an invasive provision of the USA PATRIOT Act that expands the FBI’s power to spy on ordinary people living in the United States.

“”No one should have to worry that the FBI is reading their email, rifling through their medical records, or forcing libraries and bookstores to turn over information on their customers and patrons,”” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida.

The action comes on the same day that the national ACLU filed the first lawsuit challenging Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act.

“”Giving the FBI unchecked authority to monitor the activities of people who are not suspected of involvement in terrorism or without having to show evidence of any wrongdoing is an invitation to abuse and moves the country dangerously down the road to a police state. It sacrifices essential freedoms, and certainly does not make us any safer, Simon added.

Specifically, Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act permits the FBI to seek an order “”for any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.”” A gag order in the law prevents those served with Section 215 orders from ever telling anyone that the FBI demanded information, even if the information is not tied to a particular suspect and poses no risk to national security.

The ACLU of Florida will be mailing letters and posters to 67 county libraries across Florida and 10 state university library systems in an effort to educate librarians about Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. The controversial section also gives the government the power to search library and bookstore records to find out which books individuals have borrowed or purchased and nullifies the free speech right of the bookstore or library to disclose the search. The ACLU is urging librarians in Florida to post placards warning patrons that their library records could become the target of government surveillance.

“”It is no one else’s business what you are reading when you borrow a book from the library,”” said Dr. Laurence Miller, Executive Director of Florida International University Libraries, and a board member of the Florida Library Association. “”But since the USA PATRIOT Act passed, all that has changed. Now, our right to read is under threat from surveillance laws that affect everyone’s privacy and free speech.””

Librarians across the country have been important allies in fighting the PATRIOT Act, the ACLU said. Some librarians, in California and Idaho for example, have worked to minimize Section 215’s impact on their patrons by shredding patron records after library books are returned, notifying patrons their records are at risk and educating the public about the problems with the law. In Florida, librarians are reviewing their records retention policies and expunging so-called “”use records”” whenever possible, according to Dr. Miller.

The ACLU is seeking to curb the use of Section 215 not only in libraries, but other places where privacy is at risk, such as bookstores, hospitals and doctors’ offices. In a complaint filed today in federal court, the ACLU argued that Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act violates the privacy rights of all Americans and threatens their First Amendment rights to say what they want, associate with the groups they choose, and freely practice their religion.

Today’s lawsuit, MCA, et al. v. Ashcroft and Mueller, was filed in Detroit on behalf of six advocacy and community groups from across the country whose members and clients believe they are currently the targets of investigations because of their ethnicity, religious and political associations. The lawsuit names Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller as defendants.

The ACLU’s complaint is available at /node/35395

The ACLU of Florida letter to librarians follows.

July 30, 2003

Dear Librarian,

Just 45 days after the September 11th attacks, almost without debate, Congress passed an antiterrorism bill that gives the federal government expanded authority to search your business or library records, including the titles of the books purchased or checked out by your library patrons. This letter contains our best suggestions on what you should do if you are served with a court order under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Under the new law, the director of the FBI may seek an order “for any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.” The request for such an order is made to a judge who sits in a special court, and the decision is made “ex parte,” meaning there is no opportunity for you or your lawyer to object in court.

You cannot object publicly either. The new law includes a gag order that prevents you from disclosing “to any other person” the fact that you have received an order to produce documents.

The ACLU is deeply concerned by the potential chilling effect of court orders issued to booksellers and librarians under this new law. Normally, when a bookseller or librarian are served with a subpoena for customer or patron information, he or she has the opportunity to ask the court to quash the order on First Amendment grounds.

Under FISA, however, booksellers and librarians may not have this chance. Depending on the wording of the order, the bookseller or librarian may be required to immediately turn over the records that are being sought.

Nevertheless, the ACLU’s advice to booksellers or librarians who receive a court order under FISA remains the same as it is to those who receive other subpoenas. The first thing you should do is call your attorney. Then, either you or your attorney should contact the ACLU of Florida so that we can put you in touch with lawyers who are familiar with the law surrounding the privacy of library records.

Although the wording of the law seems to suggest that contacting anyone about the court order is forbidden, it is the ACLU’s belief that you remain entitled to legal counsel. Therefore, you may call your attorney and/or the ACLU of Florida. Because of the gag order, however, you should not tell the ACLU that you have received a court order under FISA. You can simply tell us that you need to contact ACLU’s legal counsel.

Legal counsel is important even in cases where it is not possible to challenge a court order. It may be possible for you to have a lawyer present during a search of your library records. If so, the lawyer will be able to help you ensure that there is no violation of the privacy of your other library patrons.

However, it is possible that the FBI will demand immediate access to your records. If the agents are unwilling to permit you to contact your attorney, you should cooperate with them. Otherwise, you may be arrested for disobeying a court order. If you have no choice but to turn over records, the best thing you can do is help the FBI find the information that it is looking for and thus avoid exposing the records of other customers. If you have legal questions after the search had been conducted, you can call your attorney or the ACLU will put you in touch with its lawyers.

At times of national crisis, civil liberties are very vulnerable. However, the ACLU does not believe that we must sacrifice freedoms in order to protect ourselves from future attacks. While we at the ACLU feel as strongly as anyone that the perpetrators of terrorism must be brought to justice, we also feel that America’s freedom – the very essence of our national character – must be protected as we respond to the threat of terrorism within our borders. Americans can be both safe and free.

That is why we have filed the first direct constitutional challenge to the USA PATRIOT Act. Specifically, the ACLU is challenging Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which vastly expands the FBI’s power to spy on ordinary people living in the United States including U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

The ACLU is challenging Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act because it violates the privacy rights of all Americans, and threatens their First Amendment rights to say what they want, associate with the groups they choose, and freely practice their religion.

There is no limit to the kinds of information the FBI can get under Section 215. We want to stop the use of Section 215 not only in libraries, but also in hospitals, bookstores, schools, charities, etc.

We are asking you to join us in the fight against the Patriot Act by educating the public about the problems with this law. One way is to use the enclosed placard as a guide to notify your patrons that their records are at risk. Our goal is to minimize Section 215’s impact on every American, and to ensure that everyone knows about the dramatic changes that have occurred in our legal system since September 11th.

We thank you on behalf of all who treasure the right to read, speak, and think as free Americans under our Constitution.

Yours very truly,

Howard Simon
Executive Director
ACLU of Florida

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