Check This Out…If You Dare!

Abbie Hoffman was having a bit of fun with the publishing industry's deepest fears when he titled his 1970 work Steal This Book. But maybe Hoffman was on to something. We might be heading toward a time when stealing books is the only way to avoid having your personal reading material fall under the scrutiny of the federal government.

In October 2001 Congress passed the USA Patriot Act as a nearly unanimous response to the vulnerability felt by many Americans after the tragedy of Sept. 11. The Patriot Act is a 132-page patchwork of new proposals and amendments to already existing laws, including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and ostensibly gives law enforcement additional tools and authority to track suspected terrorists.

One little-known aspect of this act may, and perhaps should, affect your reading enjoyment this summer. If you are sitting on the beach reading this, you might want to make a mental list of what you bought (or checked out) to take on vacation. The bad news is, under this act, Attorney General John Ashcroft may already have such a list for you.

The USA Patriot Act has given new authority to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to track down just what you have been reading—or at least buying and checking out. Under the FISA provisions, the FBI can bring a court order gained in secret proceedings (ex parte) requiring a bookstore or library to turn over "business records." And the library or bookstore is forbidden from seeking legal counsel or contacting the individual whose material is being requested.

The Web sites of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and the American Library Association suggest that members abide by the order, but then call the appropriate association. The librarians are told not to mention that the FBI has visited, but simply that they would like to talk to a lawyer.

"Prior to this time, libraries have always had strong ethical responsibility to guard people's information and data," said Thomas Eland, library faculty member and department coordinator at Minneapolis Community Technical College. "[The Patriot Act] sounds very draconian in its approach."

Free access to information is a cornerstone of a democratic structure. "There used to be a sense that, in a democracy, we needed to be adequately informed to make an educated decision," Eland said. "Some forces today seem to argue that we are a better citizen if we only know a pre-determined, limited amount."

THE SUPREME COURT of Colorado seems to share Eland's concerns. On April 8, the court unanimously overturned an appellate court's decision that ordered the Tattered Cover, an independent bookstore in Denver, to turn over receipts to the FBI. While the ruling wasn't directly related to the USA Patriot Act, the court did send a message concerning its intention to protect customer privacy for bookstore patrons. The court found that the First Amendment and the Colorado Constitution protect a person's "fundamental right to purchase books anonymously, free from governmental interference."

A government that operates transparently is perhaps at a disadvantage in the short term, as its flaws may be freely ridiculed by those who otherwise might have remained ignorant of them. But a government that operates in secrecy is necessarily at a disadvantage in the long run, at least in a democracy. Surely Watergate and its popular offspring (the -gate family) remind us that gutting constitutional protections of privacy and personal expression do not a stronger union make.

In this atmosphere, censorship is also a legitimate concern. "If libraries may be hassled by law enforcement agencies when certain perspectives are included in their collection, librarians may decide not to include those perspectives in the collection," said Eland. "Given real budget constraints and these hassles, certain ideological viewpoints may be ‘easier' to accept and thereby can shape how we read and what we know." Access could become a real issue.

Hoffman encouraged us to avoid the capitalistic system by "stealing his book." But under the current administration, we may anticipate a title like Steal Our Civil Liberties. And as long as Ashcroft is watching, I think I'll buy this one at a garage sale; no receipts, you know.

Bob Hulteen, a Sojourners contributing writer, is director of the Twin Cities Religion and Labor Network, and lives in Minneapolis. In a former life, he was a public librarian.

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