Carol Brey-Casiano Tells a Patriot Act Story

June 29, 2010

The Leroy C. Merritt Humanitarian Fund—established in 1970 to provide financial aid to librarians who are in jeopardy for their stand on intellectual freedom, who face discrimination, or who have been denied employment rights—celebrated its 40th anniversary Monday with a gala dinner in the exhibition hall of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Besides the Shakespeariana and Elizabethan maritime rarities on display, the highlight of the evening was the story former ALA President Carol Brey-Casiano told—for the first time in its entirety, she said—about an experience she described as the worst in her professional career. It involved a Texas Ranger, a lawyer named Paco, the Patriot Act, and the Merritt Fund.

Shortly after the September 11 attacks in 2001, two men came into the El Paso (Tex.) Public Library where Brey-Casiano was (and still is) director. One man, wearing a white cowboy hat and a huge belt buckle, identified himself as a Texas Ranger. He told her a threat had been sent recently from one of the library computers and demanded to see the sign-up sheets. Brey-Casiano replied that she could not release patron records without a court order and that, in any case, the sign-up sheets were shredded every night. The ranger’s sidekick began citing the USA Patriot Act as authority, but she reminded him that it was a federal law, which cannot be invoked by a state law enforcement official.

The two men left, but the next morning a court order arrived asking for specific sign-up sheets—ones that could not be handed over because they had already been shredded. The following Monday, Brey-Casiano got a call from the mayor of El Paso, who accused her of withholding information (a felony in Texas) and told her he was putting her on administrative leave. Knowing her rights, she insisted she had done nothing wrong and followed proper legal procedures. The mayor admitted it was out of his hands, since the Texas Ranger had filed the complaint. He agreed to let her stay on the job as long as she told no one about the situation—effectively a gag order—during the course of an official investigation of her actions.

She immediately called the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, which advised her to find a lawyer quickly. OIF Director Judith Krug told her she should apply for assistance from the Merritt Fund. She applied and received a grant of $1,000, which helped her pay for her lawyer, an El Paso attorney named Francisco “Paco” Domínguez.

“The investigation was more far-reaching than I could ever have imagined,” Brey-Casiano told the audience. “Police interrogated all 140+ of my staff members, asking about my character but without saying why they wanted to know. Some of them came to me in tears, and others refused to answer any questions at all.”

Finally, after months of this intimidation the El Paso police chief (whom she considered a friend) gave her some reassuring signals, and Paco called to say that the District Attorney had decided not to prosecute her for withholding information. She found out later the decision was due largely to the response of her staff, all of whom had said, “Carol would not do that.”

All of this, she said, resulted in her “increased dedication to intellectual freedom and the privacy of users.” In addition, every year her staff reviews the library procedures for handling requests for documents and information from the police. “If it had not been for OIF and the Merritt Fund, it could have been 10 times worse,” she concluded. And she did repay the Merritt Fund the money it had provided her.