USA PATRIOT Act Letter

Vermont Library Association
Adopted: October 21, 2002

In October 2002, the Vermont Library Association Executive Board approved the following letter regarding the USA PATRIOT Act (Public Law 107-56). Hastily passed with no public hearings and signed by President George W. Bush on Oct. 26, 2001, the law has significant implications for libraries. Intended to expand the government’s ability to prevent and fight terrorism, it includes provisions that threaten the privacy rights of library users and undermine the confidentiality that supports the free exchange of ideas so critical for democracy.

On March 6, 2003, U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced the Freedom to Read Protection Act (H.R. 1157), which would exempt libraries and booksellers from Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. Close to 200 Vermont librarians and libraries have added their names to the letter. If you would like to sign on, send an e-mail message to [email protected]. In your e-mail message, please include the following information:
&nbsp-your name or your library’s name
&nbsp-your town and state of residence, or the town and state in which your library is located
&nbsp-whether you are a librarian or a concerned citizen

Open Letter to Vermont’s Congressional Delegation

We, the undersigned librarians and booksellers, implore Senators Leahy and Jeffords and Congressman Sanders to introduce legislation to eliminate provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act that undermine Americans’ Constitutionally guaranteed right to read and access information without governmental intrusion or interference. The Act-passed with virtually no Congressional debate-gives law enforcement officials broad authority to demand that libraries or booksellers turn over books, records, papers, and documents–in fact “any tangible things.” The government, for example, can subpoena records of books that individuals have borrowed or purchased, as well as the establishment’s computer hard drives. And the bookseller or librarian is prohibited from telling anyone that an investigation is underway. It also allows the government–without showing probable cause–to install devices to monitor Internet use within a library, no matter who is using the computers. The monitors can sweep up vast amounts of information about people who are not suspected of a crime.

We understand the need for sufficient government authority to protect Americans from real danger of terrorist acts. But these new provisions are unnecessary. Laws already existed, prior to the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, giving law enforcement ample power to use warrants, subpoenas, or wiretaps to obtain confidential information about individuals. The important difference is that these laws conformed to the Constitution. Access to Americans’ private lives required probable cause and was subject to judicial oversight.

The freedom to read is one of the cornerstones of democracy. Our professions are founded on principles that encourage the free expression of ideas and the right of a citizenry to access those ideas free of censorship, violations of privacy, or the threat of governmental intrusion. We consider ourselves front-line defenders of the First Amendment.

It is especially crucial for a free society to remain vigilant against threats to its liberties during periods of national stress and crisis, when those liberties are most at risk. We do not have to reach back far to know that our concerns are not abstract. Internments of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the destruction of innocent lives during McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade – lawmakers at the time considered these policies to be rational, reasonable responses to perceived threats. Now, of course, those moments are shameful to us.

Let us do what is right so that Americans will look back at this time with pride, rather than shame.

These provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act do not protect us from terrorism. Rather, they cast a wide net of suspicion and surveillance over the community of readers, researchers, and information-seekers. They are dangerous steps toward the erosion of our most fundamental civil liberties. Please present your colleagues in Congress with a bill to repeal these provisions now.

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

Signed,
Executive Board, The Vermont Library Association
October 2002

SIGNATORIES TO VLA’S OPEN LETTER TO VERMONT’S CONGRESSIONAL DELEGATION