Revisions to the U.S. Patriot Act still don’t adequately protect the rights of American librarians and readers of library materials. As set out in the New York Times story today, under the original version of the legislation:
[a] Connecticut librarian …was visited by the Federal Bureau of Investigation last year and presented with what is known as a national security letter demanding patron records.
The subpoena, issued as part of a counterterrorism investigation, not only barred him from disclosing the target of the inquiry, but also forbade him and others at his place of work to ever discuss the letter or even to acknowledge its receipt.
Though some 30,000 national security letters are issued a year without arousing public protest, the librarian was reluctant to comply because of professional ethics aimed at keeping library records confidential.
On the advice of the American Civil Liberties Union, his employer went to court to challenge the constitutionality of the subpoena, the provisions of the Patriot Act that broadened the use of national security letters after Sept. 11, 2001, and the order permanently forbidding discussion of the F.B.I.’s demand.
Under revised law national security letters can’t be used to obtain records “so long as the library is not operating as an ‘electronic communication service,” a term defined as “any service which provides to users thereof the ability to send or receive wire or electronic communications.” This, of course, fairly describes the modern library in its ability to receive requests for materials through its website and, of course, to provide access to electronic media directly within the premises.
The new law would let a library challenge a letter, but that challenge would have to wait a year if the government insisted.
Librarian Doe, by the way, is still legally unable to identify himself as the subject of the letter that’s the subject of the litigation.