CHICAGO — The American Library Association (ALA) Council, in the light of recent revelations related to National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance, has passed a resolution reaffirming “its unwavering support for the fundamental principles that are the foundation of our free and democratic society.” These include “a system of public accountability, government transparency, and oversight that supports people's right to know about and participate in our government.”
The public recently learned that the National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting the telephone call metadata of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon Business Services, AT&T, and Sprint pursuant to an order issued by the Foreign Intelligent Surveillance Court (FISC) under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act.
In the resolution, the Council calls upon the U.S. Congress, President Obama and the courts to reform “our nation's climate of secrecy, overclassification, and secret law regarding national security and surveillance” and urges Congress and the president to provide authentic protections that prevent government intimidation and criminal prosecution of government employees and private contractors who make disclosures of wrongdoing in the intelligence community.
The resolution also calls upon the public to engage in and lead public dialogues discussing the right to privacy, open government and balancing civil liberties and national security.
It also encourages the public to support bills and other proposals that both secure and protect our rights to privacy, free expression and free association and promote a more open, transparent government, while also expressing appreciation to members of Congress who work to protect privacy and civil liberties.
The resolution states that public access to information by and about the government is essential for the healthy functioning of a democratic society and is “a necessary predicate for an informed and engaged citizenry empowered to hold the government accountable for its actions.”
It adds that, "The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic."
The resolution expresses the ALA’s concern about due process for those who have disclosed documents exposing the extent of public surveillance and government secrecy, stating that access to these documents now enables the critical public discourse and debate needed to address the balance between our civil liberties and national security. Such disclosures enable libraries to support such discourse and debate by providing information and resources and for deliberative dialogue and community engagement.
Libraries, the resolution says, are essential to the free flow of ideas and to ensuring the public’s right to know.
Since 1939, the ALA has affirmed the right to privacy in its Code of Ethics. In 2002, the ALA included among the "principles of privacy" the fact that "privacy is a right of all people and must be protected in the networked world" and the recognition that "the rights of anonymity and privacy while people retrieve and communicate information must be protected as an essential element of intellectual freedom.”
In 2003, ALA criticized the USA PATRIOT Act and other recently enacted laws, regulations, and guidelines on the grounds that they "increase the likelihood that the activities of library users, including their use of computers to browse the Web or access email, may be under government surveillance without their knowledge or consent."
Beginning in 2010, ALA has sponsored “Choose Privacy Week,” a campaign designed to raise public awareness about personal privacy rights by encouraging local libraries to provide programming, online education, and special events to help individuals to learn, think critically and make more informed choices about their privacy, especially in an era of pervasive surveillance. ALA has also created a website, www.ala.org/liberty, that provides substantive information about privacy, surveillance, open government, and overclassification as well as civic engagement tools to facilitate deliberative dialogues to help support libraries and librarians who create opportunities for public dialogues addressing these topics.
See Council Document # 20.4 in ALA Committee on Legislation Report to Council (PDF).