One month before controversial portions of the USA Patriot Act are set to expire, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) last week reintroduced a reauthorization bill that would restore protections for reader privacy that were eliminated by the Act in 2001.
In 2009, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Leahy bill, but it never received a vote by the full Senate, and the expiring provisions of the Patriot Act were extended for one year without any changes. The new bill provides important safeguards for library records, limiting FBI searches to the records of people who are “agents of a foreign power,” including suspected terrorists. This protection would prohibit the federal government from using its search power to conduct “fishing expeditions” into what people are reading. The Patriot Act currently authorizes the FBI to search any records that are “relevant” to a terrorist investigation, including the records of people who aren’t suspected of criminal conduct.
The Campaign for Reader Privacy, organized in 2004 by the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, and PEN American Center, represents librarians, booksellers, authors, and publishers. The campaign supports the USA Patriot Act Sunset Extension Act of 2011. Still, the bill does not provide additional protection for bookstore customers’ records, which could still be searched whenever the FBI believes they are “relevant.” Barbara Jones, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, is asking Congress to protect the privacy of reader records in bookstores as well as libraries. “We appreciate the heightened protection afforded library records for those Americans who borrow books. The next logical step would be to safeguard the First Amendment rights of Americans who purchase books in a bookstore.”