Four members of the House of Representatives have introduced legislation to reign in the power granted by the Patriot Act to the investigative tool known as the National Security Letter (NSL). The National Security Letters Reform Act of 2009 would return the issuing requirements of NSLs to pre-9/11 requirements. This has been hailed by the ACLU at the same time as they have launched their own website calling for reform of the Patriot Act.
For those who might not recall, libraries and library systems have been long wary of the enhanced powers of NSLs. It came to a full conflict in the case of Library Connection v Gonzales in which a library consortium challenged both the gag order and the records sought. It ended with the government withdrawing the NSL and lifting the gag order. You can read more about it here.
I wasn’t a librarian in 2001 when the original Patriot Act was passed. I do remember talking about the chilling effect that it had on the average library record in my graduate courses. (I recall reading about some library systems in California shredding every type of record that they didn’t need to run the system, but I can’t find that article for linking.) I remember thinking that it was a real shame to put the library in an untenable position of trying to remain in compliance with the law and protecting the privacy of the patrons. While most will see themselves as defenders of academic freedom and intellectual inquiry (and embrace the radical militant librarian moniker), I would argue that we should have never allowed ourselves to get to that point in the first place. (Perhaps the political activism of today will ensure any such future endeavors.) However, hindsight being what it is, I certainly commend my fellow librarians for their steps to preserve some of the freedoms that make this country great.
(Cross posted to LISNews)