ACLU of New Mexico Seeks to Protect Individual Privacy; Library Patrons to be Warned of Government's New Powers

Affiliate: ACLU of New Mexico
July 22, 2003 12:00 am

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ACLU of New Mexico
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ALBUQUERQUE -Many Americans are still unaware of the extent to which the government can access their personal information, so the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico (ACLU-NM) is launching a “Campaign to Defend Our Libraries” to make them take notice. This campaign comes while Congress has pending legislation that seeks to protect the privacy of library and bookstore patrons.

“Our libraries are intended to be a forum for open discussion and a source for unfettered knowledge, but the PATRIOT Act is changing that,” said Peter Simonson, Executive Director of the ACLU of New Mexico. “Public libraries remain the gateway for many people to educate themselves – both through borrowing books and utilizing the Internet. Many are unaware that their library habits could become the target of government surveillance. In a free society, such monitoring is odious and unnecessary.”

Now, a year and a half out from 9-11, ordinary Americans are beginning to realize just how much power the PATRIOT Act gives the government to peer into their private lives. The campaign is drawing Americans~ attention to just one area–libraries. But other areas can also fall under the government~s microscope eroding our fundamental and reasonable expectation of privacy.

The campaign kicks off with the ACLU of New Mexico mailing posters and fliers to a select list of 50 New Mexico librarians who participated in a panel on the PATRIOT Act during the New Mexico Library Association~s statewide conference last spring. Librarians can post the posters and distribute fliers to warn and educate their patrons about Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. Specifically, section 215 grants law enforcement the ability to obtain – without an ordinary criminal subpoena or search warrant and without probable cause – a court order giving them access to “business records” and “any tangible thing,” which include records from libraries, booksellers, doctors, universities, financial institutions and Internet service providers.

Moreover, it imposes a gag order on the librarians, bookstores and doctors-barring them from telling anyone, including their clients that their records have been reviewed by law enforcement. The section is broad and structured so that ordinary American citizens may be targets of intelligence investigations. The standard that must be met in order for a warrant to be issued is substantially lower than probable cause.

Earlier this year, the New Mexico Library Association adopted a resolution by its national organization, the American Library Association, that considers certain sections of the USA PATRIOT Act a “present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users.” Eileen Longsworth, President for New Mexico Library Association said, “NMLA is on record expressing its concerns about the Patriot Act. The NMLA encourages the Library Community to educate itself and Library customers about the Patriot Act, and the potential dangers to individual privacy and confidentiality of library records resulting from the enforcement of this act.”

The national ACLU may rollout a campaignto libraries nationwide in the coming months. Interestingly, the campaign directs patrons to send inquiries about the new policy to Attorney General Ashcroft, who urged Congress to pass the legislation while chastising those concerned with protecting liberty.

Among the documents contained in the campaign packet, patrons will find information on potential federal legislative remedies. Currently, two pending bills – HR 1157, introduced in the House by Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and S 1158, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) – seek to restore privacy in libraries and bookstores.

“The secrecy that surrounds section 215 leads us to a society where the ~thought police~ can target us for what we choose to read or what Websites we visit,” stated Simonson. “While we wait for Washington to correct these mistakes, our campaign seeks to inform patrons about these un-American provisions.”

For more on the ACLU’s efforts to defend privacy and freedom of information, go to the ACLU’s ‘Safe and Free’ website:

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