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Patriot Act affects ND

Joe Trombello | Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Although the Patriot Act has had little direct effect on University Libraries according to Director of Libraries Jennifer Younger, the applications of the legislation allow for the restrictions of intellectual freedom and patron record confidentiality – two issues that she and other librarians find troubling.

Libraries and civil rights groups have reacted strongly to the legislation signed into law by President Bush Oct. 26, 2001. The Berkeley, Calif. public library instructed employees to tell law enforcement officials that they were unable to act on subpoenaed requests for information. Cities such as Ann Arbor, Mich. and Cambridge, Mass. passed legislation that dubs the act threatening to their citizens’ civil rights.

Specifically, Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows the federal government to access any item in business records that may prove useful in a federal investigation of international terrorism or foreign intelligence. Although the Section applies only to general business records and may only be used narrowly in efforts to protect the U.S. against international espionage or to gather foreign intelligence information on non-U.S. citizens, the legislation by implication allows access to patron records as well as e-mail correspondence and website logs from library-owned computers.

The national library community has voiced concern about a potential for the intrusion of federal government into what reading materials or websites library patrons have viewed.

“Everyone should be able to read any information they want to without it becoming a matter of public record,” Younger said.

Younger also expressed concern at the potential for damage to academic research as the government has become more restrictive of what materials it allows the public to view.

The federal government sends documents to libraries monthly as matter of record, and Younger said that she is aware of two instances in the past two years where the federal government has recalled documents from Notre Dame that they had previously sent. This de-selection of information means the government is able to control what the public may view, and by implication, what material researchers have to draw from.

“Any time there is a restriction of information flowing to the public . . . that is at fundamental cross-purposes with the Bill of Rights,” Younger said. “The idea that if you are researching a topic that is off the main stream, anything you are reading or using is subject to seizure without you even knowing it [is troubling].”

Although the possibility for government intrusion is small, Notre Dame librarians said they find the legislation gives too much power to the federal government. Whereas federal agents were previously allowed to gather information based on probable cause, the Patriot Act allows requests for information sought “in connection with” a terrorism investigation.