On gag rules, spy tools and freedom of speech

April 22, 2002

JOHN ASHCROFT wants to know what you're reading.

That's but one chilling implication of the USA Patriot Act, which was rushed into law following the Sept. 11 tragedy, ostensibly to expand the tools authorities use to catch spies and terrorists. Combine it with new Bush administration policies obscuring the public's view of government and limiting access to public records and presidential papers, and what emerges is a pattern of assaults on the First Amendment, cloaked in swagger about national security and patriotism.

America will be neither safer nor stronger if its elected leaders hide their activities, and if free-thinking citizens cannot assess the merits and foundations of their decisions. Yet Mr. Ashcroft has made it easier for federal agencies to deny citizens' Freedom of Information requests for documents paving a paper trail of government action. And repositories of federal reports have been ordered to shred dozens of documents to prevent public inspection.

America will not be made secure by allowing the Justice Department to pry into library patron records, which many states have declared confidential, or by requiring bookshops to reveal the titles that customers are buying. Yet the Patriot Act allows the FBI to act on suspicion and secretly study a person's reading habits in terrorism or espionage investigations. There's a gag order prohibiting librarians and booksellers from telling anyone - even the customer himself - that borrowing records have been seized.

The chilling effect is far-reaching.

A decade ago, the American Library Association (ALA) believed it had successfully ended snooping in the stacks by exposing and protesting the FBI's monitoring of Eastern European patrons with the hope of catching Soviet spies. Now the Patriot Act reissues Big Brother's library pass, according to ALA spokesmen.

American Booksellers Association members, especially small independent stores, also are alarmed. Should they maintain or purge customer records, which could build the business but now also can be used to breach the customers' trust?

To be sure, the anxiety existed before Sept. 11, but booksellers were able to rely on the First Amendment to challenge and, where possible, quash search warrants. This month, for example, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld a Denver bookstore's right to protect its sales record from police review. According to the ALA, searches initiated under the Patriot Act cannot be challenged.

Librarians and booksellers are joining forces with civil liberties groups to protest these incursions on the freedom to read, which is a cornerstone of free speech. But they need readers as well to join in asserting that intellectual curiosity is not a luxury but a patriotic and democratic duty.

The worthy goal of protecting America from assault does not justify the dismantling of freedoms protected by the Constitution. And if the heinous acts of Sept. 11 prompt us to abandon the very liberties essential to our democracy, what are we fighting for?

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