by Bailey Porter
LV Life Editor
Libraries and universities are among the institutions feeling an increased sense of uneasiness since the enactment of the USA Patriot Act in October 2001.
The University of La Verne has begun to respond with faculty forums like an American Association of University Professors meeting held Oct. 17.
“There is this whole veil of secrecy over everything,” said Donna Bentley, associate professor and research librarian at the University.
That is because under the Patriot Act section 213, known as “sneak and peek,” government agencies have increased power of surveillance. New computer technologies can monitor every aspect of the electronic media, or what is written, read or sent from computers. It allows the FBI to conduct secret searches without search warrants or probable cause. Another section allows searches of third party holders of personal records, including libraries.
Many of the provisions of the USA Patriot Act, short for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, were written prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. They regulate government conduct that was previously unregulated. However, on the flip side are the sections now under the greatest scrutiny by the American Civil Liberties Union, American Library Association and both parties in Congress. Those were written and quickly signed into law soon after the terrorist attacks when fear drove every law makers’ actions.
A sequel, Patriot Act II, was drafted early in 2003 but received heavy criticism. A draft of a similar bill, the Victory Act, Vital Interdiction of Criminal Terrorist Organizations Act of 2003, authored by Senator Orrin Hatch, began to circulate in June.
It is in retrospect that many Americans are raising questions about the effect of the Patriot Act on the right to privacy, intellectual freedom and the free flow of information and ideas.
“There is this whole sense under the Patriot Act that no one feels their civil liberties are protected any more,” Bentley said, “People do have a feeling now that big brother is coming and looking over their shoulder.”
“Under the Patriot Act, without subpoena, someone could come in and ask for your circulation record,” she said, “And the same thing is true at (the Office of Instructional Technology); they could ask for your e-mail records.”
The University library’s circulation system does not store patrons’ records after books have been returned to the library, but the FBI can find out about books that are still checked out, Bentley said.
And under the act, librarians are forbidden from informing faculty or anyone using the library whether they are being investigated.
The FBI has not yet asked the library for any records of patrons as far as she knows, Bentley said, divulging that under the Act, even admitting something like that is illegal.
Some libraries have placed signs in the windows that read: “The FBI has not been here: (watch very closely for the removal of this sign).” That is the extent to which librarians can respond to requests from government agencies to conduct “sneak and peak” searches on patrons’ records.
If for example, a student was researching science, technology, terrorism and biological weapons, as Professor Dan Merritt’s Science and Society class will be doing in the spring, that might be enough of a red flag to bring FBI agents in to check on that student’s record. In such a situation, the library staff, as a third party, cannot notify that student of the FBI’s proceedings.
Secrecy and academic freedom are a main issue of the Patriot Act, Bentley said. One of the main issues that Americans across the United States are angry about is the fact that what they read could be under government scrutiny, she said.
There needs to be a balance, Bentley said, between upholding civil liberties and maintaining security that the Patriot Act does not perpetuate.
“We still want to feel safe, but we’re not certain we’re willing to trade our privacy for what seems to be – not as fruitful as it could be – prosecution of terrorists,” she said.
The Patriot Act extends the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to safeguard elements of private life from invasion by FBI surveillance. FISA now authorizes the use of “wire taps” that many argue is a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
“It’s ironic that though the government is engaging in a war to bring democracy to a country, it would suppress the civil liberties of Americans to do that,” said Richard Gelm, chairmen of the political science department.
Opposition to the Patriot Act is growing in a Congress that two years ago supported it.
Patriot Act resolutions have been passed in three states and 150 counties and cities. Amendments like the Freedom to Read Protection Act have been introduced but not yet adopted. Republicans and Democrats are seeking to change the law.
The California Library Association, with the American Library Association, issued a resolution in February encouraging all librarians to educate the public on the restrictions to their civil liberties under the Patriot Act.
“My fear is the government is taking a great risk in rounding up innocent people to catch the few possibly guilty parties,” she said. “As a student, I’d be concerned about that.”
Bentley questioned whether the Patriot Act also promotes racial profiling.
“We do have an international student base here in culturally diverse southern California, but here at La Verne as well and what does that mean to them? Do you have to fear for your ability to conduct your education?”
The possibility of intrusion and monitoring of the electronic medium that the Patriot Act fosters could be enough to promote faculty to self-censorship, said English professor Bill Cook, which could restrict research and commentary.
Cook writes for Counterpunch.com, an online political journal.
He said he receives e-mail responses about his articles from people not only from English speaking countries but also from China, Arab speaking countries and Jewish groups, many of which he does not know the source or the context of their organizations.
He has received e-mails from the Kahan Jewish organization, a known terrorist group, but is in no way is he connected with terrorists, he said.
“Under the Patriot Act, there is a certain guilt by association,” he said.
In the end, if faced with the request to hand over records of a patron, Bentley said she would have to react given an individual, ethical decision.
“If I as a librarian am asked to hand over records am I going to do it or am I going to go to jail for it?” Bentley said.
In a president’s forum held Oct. 23, faculty raised questions about the University’s actions if a situation were to occur that buoyed this kind of question of civil disobedience from faculty and staff.
ULV President Stephen Morgan said although the University will continue to uphold the principle of academic freedom, “We are not in a position to break the law to protect individuals or groups.”
Doing so, he said, could lead to government withdrawal of some $70 million financial aid for students each year.
“I see that we have no choice but to comply with the law.”
He also said that at this point, universities are still trying to decide, with the aid of legal council, what their responsibilities are with respects to the Patriot Act.
Bentley and faculty are planning a forum in the spring to further discuss academic freedom under the Patriot Act.