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On October 25, 2001, the Congress of the United States passed the USA Patriot Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) It is now Public Law 107-56. They passed the legislation without substantive debate, and its provisions are now the law of the land. The act essentially allows federal agencies investigating persons who are suspected of being terrorists or who may be harboring terrorists to be more closely scrutinized. A simple search warrant can be issued to the investigative agency/s and they may request a person’s confidential information from any business or institution. No subpoena is required and the person whose records are being examined cannot be notified. The ramifications for libraries and the privacy of library records is the same as for any other entity.
In October of 2003, Congress strengthened some provisions of the USA Patriot Act, making it easier for government intelligence agencies to acquire information. Under these additional provisions, warrants can be issued for suspicion and no longer require cause.
Knowing that any federal intelligence agency may request private information concerning an individual and that they can make this request with a nonspecific search warrant, what are the options for the library staff when/if they are confronted?
First, as with all your library processes, have a written procedure in place. This should be a document that will let your staff know exactly how to proceed when presented with a warrant. Your staff will need to understand that they cannot refuse to provide information. They do, however, have the right to notify their superiors and to request the presence of an attorney.
• Be sure to consult with legal counsel on the ramifications of the USA Patriot Act and state and local law to ensure that your policies and procedures are compliant and appropriate. That will also insure that your counsel is ready to assist you should the need arise.
• Review your policies. Pay particular attention to your records retention and how that information may be accessed. Decide how to proceed through your records to retrieve personal data, and set a date limit for the length of time records are retained.
• Make sure to train your staff. They need to know exactly what to do when approached by law enforcement. It would be very helpful to have specific responses that make it easier for staff to respond. Knowing a step by step procedure makes it possible for staff to be secure in dealing with legal processes.
The library cannot notify an individual whose records have been the subject of a warrant request, but having an informed staff with procedures in place will help to insure that only the information required is made available. If you follow your written policies; move your process through a predetermined chain of command; contact your legal counsel; and document the incident, you will have done all you can do to protect your patrons and your staff.
Be sure to follow up on any legal requests through additional consultation with your legal counsel. They will be able to walk you through the dos and don’ts of any additional responsibilities and/or legal requirements you or your staff may have.
Check regularly for changes in laws and regulations that may affect your library and your patrons. Some aspects of the USA Patriot Act have already undergone change. The law, as always, has a fluid aspect. Stay informed.