The USA Patriot Act

The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (USA PATRIOT Act) became law on October 26, 2001, largely in response to the events of September 11, 2001. This law amended over 15 federal statutes, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and other statutes that govern criminal procedure, computer fraud and abuse, foreign intelligence, wiretapping, immigration, and the privacy of student records.

These amendments broadly expand the powers of federal law enforcement agencies investigating cases involving foreign intelligence and international terrorism, and grant greater authority to the Federal Bureau of Investigations and other law enforcement agencies to gain access to business records when investigating terrorist activities. Business records could include medical records, educational records and library records either in paper or electronic format. The new law contains no requirement of "particularity," which means an entire library database may be seized, not just individual patron records. The USA PATRIOT Act also expands the laws governing wiretaps and "trap and trace" phone devices to Internet and electronic communications. Collectively, these enhanced search and surveillance powers pose the greatest challenge to privacy and confidentiality in the library.

In addition to granting broad powers to law enforcement agencies, the USA PATRIOT Act amendments also impose a "gag order" on all warrants issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The "gag order" prevents the library and all library staff from disclosing to any other party, including the patron whose records are the subject of the search warrant, that the library was served with a warrant or that records were produced in accordance with the warrant. The existence of the "gag order" does not mean that libraries and librarians served with such a search warrant cannot consult with their legal counsel concerning the warrant. A library and its employees can still seek legal advice concerning the warrant and request that the library's legal counsel be present during the actual search provided for by the warrant.

Further information:

If you or your library are served with a warrant issued under this law, and wish the advice of legal counsel but do not have an attorney, you can obtain assistance from the Freedom to Read Foundation's legal counsel. Simply call the Office for Intellectual Freedom (1-800-545-2433, ext. 4223) and inform the staff that you need to speak to a lawyer. You need not-and, indeed, should not-disclose the reason you need legal assistance. OIF staff will assure that an attorney returns your call. You should not inform OIF staff of the existence of the warrant.

ALA's Washington Office, Patriot Act:

Office of Intellectual Freedom, USA Patriot Act:

USA Patriot Act in the Library:
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