Read Alert

Shusshhhh! Librarians turn a page in the Patriot Act.

"I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library," said Jorge Luis Borges.

And standing at the gates to that paradise will be a librarian, one index finger pressed to pursed lips while the other punches the delete key on the computer system tracking patrons' reading records, both naughty and nice.

Strip that librarian as bare as the statue in the lobby of the Department of Justice, and you have John Ashcroft's personal vision not of heaven, but of hell. Of an avenging angel who managed to wring a rare public concession from the attorney general. Pounded on both sides during his sixteen-state, eighteen-city tour touting the almost-two-year-old Patriot Act (officially known as Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act), last week Ashcroft finally surrendered this bit of information: "The number of times section 215 has been used to date is zero."

Section 215 is the provision of the Patriot Act that allows the federal government to "seek records from libraries, bookstores or other businesses" when securing such records would further "an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities."

Ashcroft shared the newly declassified FBI memo reluctantly, grudgingly, in response to "baseless hysteria" promulgated by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association and other civil-rights groups on both the right and the left. "To date, we have not been able to counter the troubling amount of public distortion and misinformation in connection with section 215," he said. "Consequently, I have determined that it is in the public interest and the best interest of law enforcement to declassify this information."

Declassify the information, but not remove section 215 from the Patriot Act.

"Obviously, I'd go much further," says Patricia Schroeder, former Colorado congresswoman, current president of the Association of American Publishers, and no stranger to going further. "He's saying he hasn't used it. Well, fine -- get rid of it."

Schroeder has been head of the AAP for six years, which gives her a ringside seat in Washington, D.C., for the battle over civil liberties. Sometimes she's right in the middle of the action, moderating debates between Al Franken and Bill O'Reilly -- "I needed a whip and a chair," she says -- and taking on the Patriot Act's most obtrusive provisions. "The Attorney General doesn't like us," she notes.

But really, what's for Ashcroft to like? Schroeder's organization is "very supportive of trying to get legislation passed that takes out bookstores and libraries," she notes -- and she knows firsthand what it might take to get such legislation passed. First, Congress must get far more aggressive than it did this summer, when the House of Representatives imposed some financial limitations on the "sneak-and-peek" provisions of Section 13 of the Patriot Act, which expands the government's ability to conduct searches. If she were still in the House, "I would be going insane," Schroeder says. "Nothing's happening. Nothing. If they do anything, they name a post office -- and they're running out of post offices."

Second, Ashcroft -- his own worst enemy -- needs to stay on the lecture circuit. "I think we ought to do a little fundraiser to keep the attorney general on tour," she says.

And third, people must support true patriots who stand up for civil liberties. The librarians in Santa Cruz, California, for example, who early on posted this warning: "Although the Santa Cruz Library makes every effort to protect your privacy, under the federal USA Patriot Act, records of the books and other materials you borrow from this library may be obtained by federal agents. That federal law prohibits library workers from informing you if federal agents have obtained records about you. Questions about policy should be directed to: Attorney General John Ashcroft." Or librarians in Boulder and other enlightened cities (not Denver, sadly), who've streamlined their record-keeping and now delete files as soon as books are returned -- just in case the feds come knocking.

And brave booksellers like Joyce Meskis, who back in 2000 stood up to members of the North Metro Drug Task Force when they tried to execute a search warrant at the Tattered Cover, whose envelope and invoice they'd found in a meth lab in north Denver. "Meskis has more guts than all of them put together," says Schroeder. "She's one of the very few people who'll say no." And she continued to say no through a lengthy appeals process that went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court, which ultimately determined that the search warrant was invalid. Only then was the subject of the dangerous book revealed: It was a guide to Japanese calligraphy.

Schroeder can read the writing on the wall. Even as booksellers, libraries and publishers alike celebrate Banned Books Week through Saturday (Harry Potter is now the most banned book in America, she says, with Captain Underpants and works by Maya Angelou close contenders), much more than specific volumes is at stake. "We have this 'Get Caught Reading' Campaign,'" says Schroeder. "We wanted to make reading sound like so much fun that Congress would ban it if they found out." That was back in 1997, she remembers, when "so many reading ads looked like 'Eat your peas.'" But after 9/11, reading itself suddenly looked like a threat to peace.

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