“Baseless Hysteria”?

ALA’s opposition to Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act

May 31, 2016

Revelations from Edward Snowden in 2013 helped change the dynamics surrounding the Patriot Act.

History demonstrates that national reactions to traumatic events often lead to government excesses. That’s what happened in the early 1950s, when many Americans perceived communist conspiracies everywhere in their culture, including books and magazines politicians wanted to censor. In reaction, the American Library Association adopted the Freedom to Read Statement in 1953. That’s also what happened in the wake of the September 11 attacks, when the government passed the USA Patriot Act on October 26, 2001.

Many libraries posted signs like this, warning patrons about the USA Patriot Act.
Many libraries posted signs like this, warning patrons about the USA Patriot Act.

Section 215, which became known as the “library records provision,” not only allowed law enforcement agencies to secretly monitor electronic communications emanating from libraries, it also required librarians to turn over patron information if requested and even imposed a gag order on those forced to comply, thus preventing them from telling anyone.

ALA opposition to Section 215 was quick and persistent. Already while Congress was discussing the act earlier that month, ALA joined a coalition of organizations opposing it. “We feared that the government would overstep,” argued Emily Sheketoff, head of ALA’s Washington Office. On January 29, 2003, ALA Council resolved that Section 215 represented “a present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users,” and urged Congress to change sections of the law that threatened those rights. Across the nation libraries posted signs warning patrons the act allowed the government to review their library records.

“Baseless hysteria,” responded Attorney General John Ashcroft in a series of September 2003 speeches reacting to ALA opposition. Perhaps, responded ALA President Carla Hayden, but “rather than ask the nation’s librarians . . . to ‘just trust him, Ashcroft could allay concerns by releasing aggregate information about the number of libraries visited using the expanded powers created by the USA Patriot Act.” Ashcroft refused.

Library Connection librarians (The Connecticut Four) receive the Robert Downs Award from ALA President Michael Gorman at the 2006 ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans. From left: Barbara Bailey, Janet Nocek, ALA President Gorman, Peter Chase, George Christian. Photo by George Eberhart
Library Connection librarians (The Connecticut Four) receive the Robert Downs Award from ALA President Michael Gorman at the 2006 ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans. From left: Barbara Bailey, Janet Nocek, ALA President Gorman, Peter Chase, George Christian. Photo by George Eberhart

Turns out ALA had reason for suspicion. Unknown to the Association, in July 2005 two FBI agents gave Library Connection Executive Director George Christian of Connecticut a National Security Letter (NSL) requiring him to hand over data about users of an IP address assigned to a Library Connection router that contained information on many patrons. When Christian balked because he thought the search unconstitutional, he and colleagues Barbara Bailey, Peter Chase, and Janet Nocek contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Because of the gag order, however, none had their names attached to the lawsuit ACLU filed shortly thereafter. Not until the government withdrew the NSL request and dropped the gag order in May 2006 were the “Connecticut Four” permitted to talk about their experiences. How many other librarians with similar experiences are still silent because of a gag order with no expiration date is not known.

Although ALA kept up the pressure, it was not until Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the National Security Agency’s data collection program in 2013 that the dynamics surrounding the Patriot Act significantly shifted. And because Senate leaders were unable to overcome parliamentary maneuvers intended to kill the Act by midnight, May 31, 2015, Section 215 automatically expired. For 14 years, ALA had played no small part in keeping this issue before the public, and thus helping to bring about Section 215’s demise.

This post is part of a six-part series on the American Library Association’s proudest moments, written for ALA’s 140th anniversary celebration.

Part 1: Present at the Creation

Part 2: The Library War Service

Part 3: The Freedom to Read

Part 4: National Library Week

Part 5: The Saga of Huron Plaza