Check This Out

Illustration by Juan Alvarado

Libraries throughout Southern California are quietly but determinedly fighting against the federal law that makes it easier for authorities to find out what patrons are reading.

In Santa Monica, librarians have posted signs warning readers that: “The FBI has the right to obtain a court order to access any records we have of your transactions.” Such signs also have gone up at libraries in South Pasadena, Monterey Park, Whittier, Santa Monica and West Hollywood. Some libraries also are deleting records as often as every day. To these librarians, at least, there is a limit to how much the domestic war on terrorism should be allowed to intrude on privacy and freedom of expression.

“We have an obligation to let the public know,” said Wini Allard, Santa Monica’s city librarian. She characterized federal anti-terrorism provisions that affect libraries as an assault on individual rights.

That view was seconded by South Pasadena city librarian Terri Maguire.

“Privacy and access to information are important to libraries,” she said. “Do we have an obligation to inform our patrons? We decided that yes, we did.”

What has fueled the ire of librarians is Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, passed in late 2001, which makes it easier for law-enforcement agencies to see what books people check out or request and what Internet sites they visit while at the library. Formerly, police or federal agents would need a court order to get library records, and they also would typically have to satisfy a higher legal standard of evidence to justify this intrusion. Now, these records can be obtained via a special federal court that, according to critics, grants search rights virtually without scrutiny. The new rules apply to bookstores as well as libraries.

Indeed, it isn’t just librarians who are troubled. Thirty-two businesses and organizations, including Borders, Barnes & Noble, the PEN American Center, the Association of American Publishers, the American Library Association (ALA) and the California Library Association have publicly decried this PATRIOT Act provision. The ALA has advised members to destroy records of book borrowing and Internet visits by patrons.

Three state governments and more than 100 cities, counties and municipalities also have taken up the cause. The Northern California city of Arcata has publicly stated that it will not comply with the PATRIOT Act. Its library and police will not cooperate with federal officials if they come a-knocking.

Many critics are urging support for the Freedom To Read Protection Act, sponsored by Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders. This legislation, proposed in March, would exempt libraries and bookstores from the PATRIOT Act. Co-sponsors include Southland representatives Maxine Waters and Linda Sanchez. On May 23, California Senator Barbara Boxer put forward a somewhat different remedy. Her Library and Bookseller Protection Act would restore prior law that makes it more difficult to obtain a court-ordered warrant authorizing a search.


Justice Department officials insist that the issue has been overblown. “There is a lot of misinformation out there by groups like the ACLU who frankly thought we were doing too much prior to the terrorist attacks,” said spokesman Jose Martinez.

Libraries have become a logical target of surveillance given that some of the September 11 hijackers sent e-mails from library computers to contact each other, say officials. They argue that American citizens have lost no rights and that the new law applies only to international-terrorism investigations.

“It expressly provides that the FBI cannot conduct an investigation of a U.S. person solely on the basis of activities that are protected by the first amendment of the Constitution,” said Martinez.

But critics perceive ample reason for alarm. The Justice Department recently disclosed, after public pressure from Congress, the ACLU and ALA, that 50 libraries have been investigated. The ALA and legislators have asked the FBI to hand over individual case information to allay their fears about government invasion of library patrons’ privacy.

Santa Monica Public Library staffers got worried after federal authorities approached them a few months after the September 11 attacks. “It turned out that the individual they were looking for was not on our database,” said librarian Allard. “After that, the city’s library board got concerned.”

In February, the library board and city council passed resolutions opposing provisions of the PATRIOT Act. “When the government can monitor what you read and buy, that to me is a threat,” said Gene Oppenheim, chair of the library board. “I don’t know how a library can ignore the PATRIOT Act and not take a stand on it.” Oppenheim recounted that “one customer was afraid that the FBI would come after him. People are afraid to go to the library and do things that they would normally do, like educate themselves about the issues of the day.”

The first library in L.A. County to post signs was Monterey Park’s Bruggemeyer Memorial Library in January 2002. On June 17, its board of trustees voted to send letters of support for the Sanders legislation. The next day the city of South Pasadena did the same.

“If you took out a book because you decided you need to know a little about smallpox, it doesn’t mean you are trying to infect the entire population with it,” said Monterey Park librarian Linda Wilson. “That is the foolishness about it. Would you bring a case against someone who is doing a paper for school?”

Some libraries, however, have declined to take a stand, including those in L.A. County, in the city of Los Angeles and in the cities of Torrance, Glendale and Beverly Hills, to name a few.

A warning sign “is a public notice but it is [also] a statement that you are concerned or don’t agree” with the PATRIOT Act, said Norm Reeder, library-services manager at Katy Geissert Civic Center Library in Torrance. “We don’t want to project that at all. The law is the law and we have to agree with what the law says.”

Others fear a diversion from more pressing issues, especially during tough budget times. “Libraries are busy trying to get positive things in the media,” said Barbara Custen, executive director of the Southern California–based Metropolitan Cooperative Library System. “I wouldn’t necessarily make the PATRIOT Act a banner issue. Libraries are also trying to figure out how to keep the lights on.” In addition, said Custen, some libraries would worry about offending patrons who might support the federal government’s position.

Activists counter that if they don’t make themselves heard, a disturbing situation could get worse. Right around the corner is the proposed Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003 or the USA PATRIOT Act II, which critics fear will endanger personal freedoms even more.

“The government said this is what we have to do to keep us safe,” said Joe Rubin, chair of the Monterey Park Library Board. “The president said our enemies attacked us because they hated the freedom that we had and we proceeded to destroy our freedom with the PATRIOT Act. I am saying, Who won the war?”

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >