Before Oct. 23, 2001, the FBI needed a court order to seize lists of books public library patrons borrowed. Now all it needs is a search warrant, the director of the Salt Lake Public Library said.
Oct. 23, 2001, marked the passage of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, when the job of librarians — "to promote actively the dissemination of information" — became more difficult, Nancy Tessman said.
Court orders allowed time for librarians to consult with attorneys before responding to the FBI; search warrants are immediate. Judges also need more concrete probable cause to issue court orders than search warrants, Tessman said.
Before passage of the act, Tessman remembers three court orders landing on her desk. But she cannot say how many, or if any, search warrants have been served at the library because it's against the law.
"The word 'library' is nowhere in the Patriot Act," said Jeffrey Breinholt, coordinator of the U.S. Department of Justice's Terrorist Financial Task Force.
Tessman and Breinholt sat on a panel at the annual Jefferson B. Fordham Debate discussing privacy in the post-Sept. 11 era at the University of Utah law school Thursday.
Breinholt, also the Justice Department's regional anti-terrorism coordinator, said paranoia in libraries has caused people to misunderstand the goal of the act, which is to root out terrorism.
"We do not have curtains around our library check-outs," he said. "It's not like a voting booth."
However, moderator and U. constitutional law professor Wayne McCormak wondered whether surrendering privacy will make the public too vulnerable to government. "Why should we trust you, George?" he asked Breinholt.
"I don't have a good answer for that," Breinholt said.
The government should be trusted as long as it's deserving, said Jimmy Gurule, University of Notre Dame law professor and former U.S. Treasury Department undersecretary for enforcement.
"We've got a wave of broad speculation. If there are specific violations, specific allegations" that the government is abusing people's privacy, then the courts will strike down portions of the U.S.A. Patriot Act and other anti-terrorism legislation, Gurule said.
But the First Amendment guarantees distrust and questioning of government, said George C. Harris, partner at San Francisco law firm Morrison and Foerster, which represented American Taliban John Walker Lindh, and a U. law professor on leave.
"I think the debate is going on in the courts as well as the community," he said.