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SNOOPING ON READERS
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Snooping on Readers

by Ellen Goodman

 Published on Thursday, July 24, 2003 by the Boston Globe

 

ON THE WHOLE, I wouldn't choose to go fishing in a library or a bookstore. The library is a bit dusty, and while the local bookstore may be the final resting place of a forest or two, it's water-challenged.

Nevertheless, the same phrase keeps coming up again and again. As worriers describe the government's ability to search through the records of readers, they label it a ''fishing expedition.'' They define it as part of John Ashcroft's all-terrain venture to catch-and-not-release terrorists.

This fish tale began in the anxious weeks after 9/11 when Congress passed the Patriot Act with hardly a dissent. The Patriot Act became the perfect example of the revised adage: Legislate in haste, and repent at leisure.

Deep in the troubled waters of the 340-page law is Section 215, a provision that gives the feds the right to inspect or seize the records of any reader, Web surfer, book buyer, or book borrower. The government can simply get approval from a secret court without showing probable cause. Moreover, a gag provision means the librarian or bookseller can't tell a customer that the government is reading over his or her shoulder.

This expedition resembles ocean dragging more than fly-fishing. Among the first to notice was a group of Vermont booksellers including Linda Ramsdell. She runs the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, population 3,500, where the bestseller this summer is ''The True Account,'' a send-up of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Ramsdell, who is also the head of the New England Booksellers Association, doesn't usually get involved in politics because ''politics involves a lot of meetings, and I don't like meetings.'' But faced with a law she found ''really creepy,'' she contacted Vermont's Bernie Sanders, the only independent congressman.

Sanders then introduced the Freedom to Read Protection Act - one of those titles that would appeal to even literacy guru Laura Bush. In fact, the bill to amend the Patriot Act and get the big hook out of the reading stream has garnered support from both the civil liberties left and the anti-big-government right. There are two similar bills now working their way through the Senate.

This is the first provision in the Patriot Act to get much attention. That, says Sanders, is because this ''isn't about Guantanamo Bay or someone from another country. Ordinary people say, `wait a minute, you mean to say the Department of Justice and the FBI can get a list of the books I take out without any evidence of terrorism? Wow, this is going way too far.'''

The Justice Department disagrees, of course. A spokesman said, ''We're only going after the bad guys. ... If you're not a terrorist or a spy, you have nothing to worry about.''

But when the government has secret, unlimited access to anything you read, any website you surf at the library, it creates the sense that we are all being watched. And ups the odds of catching the wrong fish.

What if you're not a terrorist but you read like one? As Emily Sheketoff of the American Library Association says: ''We don't agree that if you read a murder mystery that makes you a murderer, if you read spy stories that makes you a spy, and if you read science books that makes you some sort of demented terrorist.''

Hmmm ... Anyone reading ''Holy War'' or ''Banish Fear of Flying'' or ''The Anarchist Cookbook,'' let alone ''Treason''? Anyone with a foreign name checking out ''Scourge'' or ''The Andromeda Strain''?

Read any good books lately? The idea that the government could throw that book at you has led some booksellers to destroy their records and led some libraries to put up signs announcing that they can't protect your privacy.

Lest you think they are alarmists, remember when the FBI wanted to check out Monica Lewinsky's chick lit. Remember when the Denver police tried to find out what an accused methamphetamine maker had ordered from the city's best-loved bookstore, The Tattered Cover. It turned out to be a book on Japanese calligraphy.

Terrorism is a serious, scary business. Since 9/11, we've been trying to figure the proper balance between security and freedom. Just what must we give up for how much safety? But before the Patriot Act, officials already had the right to go through library records if there was probable cause. We need a new law to get back to an old balance.

This is not the last look at the Patriot Act under the dominion of John Ashcroft. Indeed, says Sanders, ''A lot of people are nervous about the kind of tools given Ashcroft.'' Fishing tools?

Time to reel that man in.

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company

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