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The USA Patriot Act and Library Privacy

The tragic events of September 11, 2001 have triggered new federal legislation aimed at aiding federal law enforcement in its quest to prevent and stamp out terrorism. On October 26, 2001, President Bush signed into law the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. This new federal legislation, Public Law 107-56, is also known as the USA Patriot Act. This law expands the powers of federal law enforcement agencies investigating cases that involve foreign intelligence and international terrorism. It is 131 pages in length and it is divided in 1016 different sections.

Although the vast majority of the act does not directly affect libraries, one provision is very much applicable to public libraries.According to section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, librarians and staff served with a search warrant or court order may not disclose its very existence to anyone other than those persons necessary to produce the tangible things sought by the warrant or order. This means that librarians and library staff are not permitted to discuss the existence of such a document produced for the benefit of federal law enforcement unless such discussion is necessary in order to obtain the things sought.

This does not mean that the libraries are powerless or that patrons' privacy rights have somehow lessened or evaporated. The USA Patriot Act does not abrogate the Michigan Library Privacy Act. In fact the Michigan Library Privacy Act is still very much in effect, and its force remains untouched by this latest piece of federal legislation. As a result, libraries and librarians served with such a warrant may still consult with their legal counsel concerning the warrant. A library and its employees may still seek legal advice concerning the warrant, in addition to requesting that the library's attorney be present during actual search and the execution of the warrant.

It remains true, however, that our world has changed since that infamous date. Our libraries and staff must adapt to this latest change. Consequently, library policies should be updated to reflect the existence of this new non-disclosure requirement found in the USA Patriot Act. Staff and librarians should be made aware of this change and trained in the correct procedures for responding to this new requirement. If your library does not have a formal policy on handling such requests from law enforcement, it is time to put them in writing. Be prepared just in case your library is called to fulfill such requests for information and tangible things by federal law enforcement.

Many questions still remain about the impact of this new law on libraries and their policies. The Library of Michigan is diligently working with the American Library Association, its Office of Intellectual Freedom and legal counsel to keep Michigan libraries up-to-date on any new developments or explanations concerning the USA Patriot Act. Look for more information in Access and on the American Library Association's own website. Please also watch for announcements on michlib-l and from your library cooperatives.

By Dragomir Cosanici,
Library Law Specialist
Library of Michigan
December 2001

Updated 04/27/2006