BOULDER, Colo. - To Priscilla Hudson, public libraries are society's great equalizer, a place where anyone can go to learn regardless of their economic, social or political background.
So she doesn't much like Big Brother peering over their shoulder.
Hudson, manager of Boulder's main library, is among a number of librarians nationwide who oppose a provision in the USA Patriot Act that gives authorities access to records of what people check out from libraries or buy from bookstores.
The law is why Boulder librarians have lately been purging their files on patrons every week, not every couple of months. And experts say other libraries are doing similar things.
Priscilla Hudson, manager of the main branch of the Boulder Public Library in Boulder, Colo., talks about the library's policies regarding access to records of what books that patrons check out on Tuesday, July 29, 2003. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
"Boulder is truly right in line with what other libraries are doing," said Deborah Caldwell-Stone of the American Library Association in Chicago.
The Justice Department says the Patriot Act, put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, is crucial in the war on terrorism. Critics say it gives the government too much power.
On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union and several Islamic groups filed a lawsuit in Detroit against the use of the act to let FBI agents monitor the books people read.
The ACLU also said that under a provision of the law, librarians can't tell the patron that the library has given the records to the government, and would be legally bound to secrecy forever.
Even before the lawsuit, librarians across the country had been waging their own form of protest.
The Santa Cruz, Calif., library is more quickly shredding its sign-in sheets for using the computers, Caldwell-Stone said. Other libraries have posted signs warning patrons that federal authorities may review their records.
The Montana Library Association passed a resolution saying it considers parts of the Patriot Act "a present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights to library users." Privacy rules there are so strict that Montana librarians must get children's permission before telling their parents what they're reading.
"More so than in other Western states, we have a real privacy feel to our Constitution and also our Montana code," said John Finn of Great Falls, head of the library association.
Government officials emphasized that the act allows the government to obtain "business records," which they said could include library records, though the act makes no mention of libraries.
Caldwell-Stone said libraries cooperate when presented with a search warrant for records. But she said the Patriot Act allows authorities to seize "any relevant tangible item" in an investigation without having to show probable cause that a crime was committed.
Forty-eight states have laws protecting library patrons' privacy, Caldwell-Stone said. The other two, Hawaii and Kentucky, have opinions by their attorneys general upholding the right.
"What the First Amendment protects and what goes on in your head isn't a basis for punishing you," she said.
John Suthers, U.S. attorney in Colorado, said he appreciates the concerns, but said the Patriot Act deals with business records and doesn't specify libraries and bookstores.
The law says the FBI cannot investigate a U.S. citizen on the basis of activities protected by the First Amendment, he said. Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock also said that part of the law requires court approval to obtain records.
Libraries and book stores across the country, however, support changing the law to make sure they aren't targeted. A book store in Montpelier, Vt., will purge purchase records for customers who ask.
The Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, one of the country's largest independent book stores, won a fight last year to protect a customer's privacy. The Colorado Supreme Court refused to order the store to turn over purchase records in a drug investigation.
The justices said records of what a person reads are constitutionally protected, and police must show a compelling interest in seeing them.
Tattered Cover general manager Matt Miller said because of business considerations, the store isn't purging its records like the Vermont store.
"We certainly respect stores and libraries that choose to handle records in the way they do," Miller said. "We spent two years trying to protect customers' privacy and First Amendment rights. It remains an integral part of our philosophy."
On the Net:
American Library Association: http://www.ala.org
Justice Department: http://www.usdoj.gov
© Copyright 2003 The Associated Press