What is the USA PATRIOT Act?

The “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” Act, or USA PATRIOT Act, was introduced less than a week after September 11, 2001, and was signed into law on October 26, 2001.

The bill broadly expanded law enforcement’s surveillance and investigative powers and amended more than 15 different statutes, including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA), the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

Among other things, the USA PATRIOT Act’s intent was to update wiretap and surveillance laws for the Internet age, addressing real-time communications and stored communications (e-mail, voicemail), and to give law enforcement greater authority to conduct searches of property.

President Bush signed the USA PATRIOT Act reauthorization legislation, which differs somewhat from the original legislation into law on March 9, 2006. A sunset of December 31, 2009, was established for Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, commonly referred to as the “library provision.”

Why does it matter to libraries?

Libraries provide a place to exercise intellectual freedom: a free and open exchange of knowledge and information where individuals may exercise freedom of inquiry as well as a right to privacy in regards to information they seek. Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association. In a library, the subject of users' interests should not be examined or scrutinized by others.

ALA believes certain sections of the USA PATRIOT Act endanger constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users. Libraries cooperate with law enforcement when presented with a lawful court order to obtain specific information about specific patrons; however, the library profession is concerned some provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act go beyond the traditional methods of seeking information from libraries.

For additional information on how the USA PATRIOT Act affects intellectual freedom, visit the Office for Intellectual Freedom website, especially their Privacy and Confidentiality section. ALA’s Resolution on the USA PATRIOT Act and Libraries is a useful resource.

Why is the ALA involved with the USA PATRIOT Act and other surveillance issues?

Protecting patron privacy and the confidentiality of library records are deep and longstanding principles of librarianship that guide ALA’s legislative and policy activities on privacy issues. The freedom to read is an inherently important part of our First Amendment rights and civil liberties.

These principles have been articulated in key resolutions passed by ALA and include numerous statements regarding the USA PATRIOT Act, national security issues and other federal surveillance and privacy policies. Prior to the PATRIOT Act, these principles were articulated through existing laws, still on the books in 48 states and the District of Columbia to protect the confidentiality of library records. Two additional states have similar policies established by letters from their attorney generals. Also, during the ALA annual conference in July 2005, ALA passed a resolution urging Congress to allow Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act to sunset.

Further Reading