Patriot Act reveals student information

By Tanika Ely

For many students the library is a perfect place to study, conduct research or surf the Internet. What some students may not realize, though, is that government officials can secretly obtain records of what materials they check out from the library, according to provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001.

The Patriot Act, as well as other state and federal laws, allows the release of University documents, including a library user’s registration, circulation records and material viewed online, according to the University library Web site.

“Under the (Patriot) Act, we are not even allowed to say if we have had any requests,” said Bob Burger, associate University librarian. “Which means, by law, we are not allowed to inform the person if information has been requested about them.”

Burger said that although there have been no requests made at any of the 42 University libraries on campus, all University library staffs are aware of the policy and are to follow posted guidelines in handling a request for the records.

Emily Sheketoff, executive director at the Washington office of the American Library Association (ALA), said that the ALA has taken a stance against these provisions and tries to make the information available to all public and academic libraries.

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“We believe they endanger library patrons’ privacy unnecessarily,” Sheketoff said. “Government officials do not need to give us any probable cause or demonstrate specifically why the material is needed.”

Sheketoff said these provisions in the Patriot Act should be amended to protect patrons’ rights. She also said she rejects the notion that providing information on patrons will lead to the apprehension of criminals and terrorists.

“This is a major violation of free speech,” Sheketoff said.

Others, however, say the Patriot Act provisions are important for national security reasons.

As a result of 9/11 there is a need to keep tabs on suspected terrorists, said Tim Johnson, press secretary for Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio). Johnson said Oxley, who cosponsored the Patriot Act, worked for the FBI in the past and knew suspected terrorist information had not been updated for 30 to 40 years prior to 9/11.

“We need to keep tabs on terrorists that live among us,” Johnson said. “The Patriot Act is needed to protect the public.”

Johnson said Oxley has read reports from the attorney general’s office regarding complaints on the acquisition of patron library records. He said the stories never seem to pan out.

“There is no hard evidence of any wrongdoing,” Johnson said.

Leigh Estabrook, director of the Library Research Center at the University, said that there is not necessarily a correlation between what people read and their actions or beliefs.

“If I were to check out a book on Islam, it doesn’t mean that I am unpatriotic,” she said. “The basis of a democratic society is that we all have the freedom to choose.”

Since the Patriot Act was passed, public libraries in Skokie, Ill., Santa Cruz, Calif., and other places have posted notices advising patrons of the law’s provisions.

Burger said that the University library does not publicly post any notices about the Patriot Act’s provisions besides what is found on its Web site.

“One public library posted every day that they did not have any requests,” Burger said. “I suppose if they did have any, they could just take the notice down.”

The University library’s policy for its staff is to contact the University Council if government officials want user information, Burger said. He said the council is made up of lawyers who work for the University and have varying expertise in different areas of law.

“We’ve consulted them on helping us revise our staff guidelines (for the Patriot Act),” Burger said.

Sheketoff said it is up to the local library administration if they should post information about the Patriot Act publicly because they know what is best for the community.

“Libraries are one of the most democratic institutions in the U.S.,” Sheketoff said. “It’s important to protect the users’ rights.”