Long lines for freedom

Today, close to 400 librarians and library supporters from every state in the nation will line up to enter every Congressional office building.  Each individual advocate in those queues will be effectively standing in for more than 10,000 of the well over 4,000,000 people who use public, academic, and school libraries in America every day.

As they wait patiently to clear security, the American Library Association’s citizen lobbyists will review the positions that they and the millions “behind them” urge Members of Congress to take on a sweeping range of issues: robust federal funding for school libraries and literacy programs, maximum taxpayer access to government information, copyright that correctly balances protection with sparking innovation, and assuring network neutrality.

No issue, however, will be closer to their hearts -- nor is of more concern to enormous numbers of Americans -- than finally recalibrating the nation’s privacy and surveillance laws. Change is urgently needed to restore to our laws respect for Americans’ civil liberties compromised in 2001, and still badly undermined today, by the USA PATRIOT Act, the outdated Electronic Communications Privacy Act, and several “cybersecurity” proposals under consideration.

The hundreds of librarians and library supporters “hitting the Hill” are part of another long line: one comprised of tens of thousands of their colleagues who, sometimes at great personal risk, have stood for many decades for the rights of library patrons’ reading, borrowing and now internet surfing records to be safe from sweeping and literally “un-warranted” bulk collection by law enforcement authorities and the indefinite retention of that information. Courageous librarians in Connecticut remain among the few to openly and legally challenge a National Security Letter seeking such records under the USA Patriot Act, and its associated total “gag order.” The case was withdrawn before a federal judge could review its merits, leaving the heroes known now as the “Connecticut Four” free to speak out, as they have for years, against the power and perils of this flawed law.

In the 2001 debate over Section 215, the now expiring provision of the original USA PATRIOT Act that still permits these intrusions, librarians were labeled “hysterical” by then Attorney General John Ashcroft for sounding the alarm about what came to be and remains known as the “library provision” of the bill.

Suffice it to say, history shows that we did not overstate the threat posed to our democracy by the sweep of the USA PATRIOT Act, and we do not do so now.  Indeed, as the revelations of recent years make chillingly clear, the Attorney General was simply wrong. Section 215 and other needlessly overbroad clauses of the USA PATRIOT Act continue to deeply threaten all of our civil liberties.

As a vote looms this month on the fate of Section 215 and other expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, on behalf of yet another long line of library and other organizations dedicated to civil liberties and human rights, the American Library Association and its 55,000 members call on Congress to:

•       finally end the “bulk collection” and retention of information under Section 215 and through the unfettered, inadequately challengeable use of National Security Letters;

•       substantially increase the transparency to the public of how often library and other similar records are sought; and

•       allow properly cleared expert advocates for Americans’ civil liberties to meaningfully participate in the deliberations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”) Court that rules in secret upon the government’s surveillance requests.

The bicameral, bipartisan USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 recently introduced is far from perfect, but it represents meaningful reform that should be passed now without further dilution of its privacy, transparency and advocacy provisions of any kind.  Incomplete as its reforms are, Congress can and should enact its important pro-privacy changes to the USA PATRIOT Act even as we and many, many others continue to fight for full restoration of our civil liberties in a dangerous world.

Many “long lines” of librarians and library supporters are in Washington today, in person and in spirit, to demand no less.

Young is president of The American Library Association.