USA PATRIOT revisited

I was talking with a friend today about Rich Lowry, the "editor" of the National Review, and it reminded me of the editorial that Shinjoung and I wrote in response to one of Lowry's columns about librarians and the USA PATRIOT Act. So I thought I'd post our letter to the editor of the San Diego Tribune. And for fairness' sake, I've posted Lowry's original drivel below the fold (as it should be!). Read on:

Title: Librarians' role and USA Patriot Act
The San Diego Union-Tribune
October 2, 2003, B-13

Rich Lowry's Sept. 23 commentary, "Librarians and the USA Patriot Act," is truly a shock to the system. It seems that one monkey has found the ability to write, if not think.

Lowry has hit on every librarian and library stereotype -- bun-wearing crones and "oases of old-style pre-Giuliani disorder and licentiousness" full of smelly homeless people with nothing better to do than surf for porn all day.

In addition, he has shown his heartlessness, ignorance, racism and classism in smearing not only the messengers of warning about the USA Patriot Act but Central American peasants, college students, homeless people and even the president's wife, Laura Bush, who was a librarian. This is the common tactic of those on the right who would rather incite and obfuscate than rationally argue the complex issues of the law itself.

The act possesses tools that could violate citizens' freedom of expression and privacy rights in libraries and bookstores. What's more, it brushes aside constitutional checks and balances in the form of due process and accountability by giving intelligence agencies power to gather information in situations that may be completely unconnected to potential terrorist activity. We are all terrorists until proven innocent in the eyes of the USA Patriot Act.

Librarians are asking the legitimate questions that need to be put to Attorney General John Ashcroft. He states -- with thinly veiled contempt -- that no libraries have been subpoenaed under section 215 of USAPA, but according to a survey in June 2002 of 1,020 public libraries by the University of Illinois, 85 libraries had been asked by federal or local law enforcement officers for information about patrons related to Sept. 11. Is he so out of touch with his agency's doings that he doesn't know what they're up to in the field?

Privacy in all its guises is an important civil right that must be fought for and protected, and the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have a long and storied history of trampling on these rights to further their own, not-always-noble ends (anyone remember J. Edgar Hoover or the American Indian Movement?). The American Library Association -- and many other groups -- are acting as canaries in the civil rights coal mine to ensure that Americans don't lose the rights granted to us in the U.S. Constitution.

If ignorance is bliss, then Lowry must be absolutely ecstatic.

JAMES R. JACOBS, Government Information Librarian, UC San Diego
SHINJOUNG YEO, Reference Librarian, UC San Diego

Here's Lowry's original column:

Title: Librarians and the USA Patriot Act
The San Diego Union-Tribune
September 23, 2003, B-6

A Shakespeare character famously said, "Let's kill all the lawyers." This gibe has lost none of its relevance through the centuries. But today we might reply to that acerbic line, "Sure -- but only if we can kill all the librarians next."

Librarians have recently let down their hair -- usually wrapped in a tight bun, of course -- to become some of the most vocal opponents of the Bush administration and the USA Patriot Act, prompting Attorney General John Ashcroft to take a public swipe at them. Librarians now constitute one of the country's main centers of thoughtless and unreconstructed leftism.

It is the sort of ideology that you expect to find among naive college students and destitute Latin American peasants. But librarians? The people who introduced us in our youth to the "Hardy Boys" stories and preside over a sanctuary of neighborhood quiet? That this is so is mostly the work of the American Library Association, which is doing for librarians what teachers unions have done for teachers: making an otherwise worthy profession seem a blight on the republic.

One way to look at it is this: Rudy Giuliani, in the 1990s, effected a revolution in New York City that became a nationwide model for local governance and reflected a new era of public impatience with disorder -- the homeless were told to "move along"; smut was squeezed out to the extent possible; and law enforcement was allowed to do its work mostly unencumbered by PC concerns. Librarians in some communities, reflecting the ideological spirit of the ALA, have managed to maintain oases of old-style pre-Giuliani disorder and licentiousness -- vagrants are allowed to treat libraries as quasi-homeless shelters; pornography is available on the computers; and law enforcement is a bugaboo.

Libraries have always been bulwarks of civilization. But today's versions are hardly the Library of Alexandria, unless that institution founded by Ptolemy II Soter in 283 B.C. was overrun by homeless looking for a comfortable place to sleep. As The Washington Post recently reported in a dire article on the effects of library budget cuts, "Librarians say the cuts are hurting homeless people who spend their days in the library." That this has become a de facto public function of libraries is why they are often associated as much with body odor as with the Dewey Decimal System.

The unwillingness to keep vagrants out of libraries goes to the fundamental inability of leftist librarians to distinguish between maintaining minimal public standards and creeping fascism. This is starkest in the pornography debate, with many librarians defending "the right" of patrons to download Internet porn in libraries, effectively making their computer terminals the "Larry Flynt Section."

If patrons must be free to download porn, it makes sense that they should be utterly free of any government monitoring in any circumstance as well. The ALA's opposition to a portion of the Patriot Act that allows counterterrorism investigators to subpoena library records has been total -- the ALA is against the very idea of it being on the books (so to speak). So the organization appeared unembarrassed when Ashcroft revealed that this part of the act -- hyped by the ALA into a fundamental assault on American rights -- has never been used.

Even if it had -- so what? This power has always existed in criminal cases. For instance, grand juries subpoenaed records from universities in the West during the course of the Unabomber case, and Americans' civil liberties somehow remained intact.

A June meeting of the ALA provided an important clue of the organization's real priorities. It declined to pass a resolution -- even a tepid one -- supporting 14 jailed independent librarians in Cuba. These true martyrs to the free circulation of reading material held little interest for the ALA, since they are anti-Castro instead of anti-Ashcroft. Some ALA members even questioned whether the 14 are "true" librarians. Good point -- how can they be, unless their top priority is bashing the Bush administration?

Rich Lowry
Editor, National Review