Section 215 Revisited
February 18, 2009

I couldn’t have been happier when President Obama drew up plans to shut down Gitmo during his first week in office.  It signaled the very break with the Bush administration that he emphasized throughout his campaign.  Now, the next step is to rework, or better yet abolish, the Patriot Act, right?  Well, perhaps not.  As the San Francisco Chronicle and Library Journal explain, Obama’s pick for Attorney General, Eric Holder, has not only hesitated to consider amending the Patriot Act, he has actually asked Congress to renew Section 215 of the Patriot Act which, in part, reads:

The Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or a designee of the Director (whose rank shall be no lower than Assistant Special Agent in Charge) may make an application for an order requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities, provided that such investigation of a United States person is not conducted solely upon the basis of activities protected by the first amendment to the Constitution.

Section 215 is one of the sections of the Patriot Act that has caused the biggest controversy, as it not only endorses surveillance, it also directly threatens readers’ privacy and other related civil liberties.  Section 215 is vehemently opposed by numerous independent booksellers groups as well as the American Library Association, and the latter sent a report last month to the transitional Obama administration recommending a thorough review and reworking of the Patriot Act, especially Section 215.

Of course, it’s still to early to know for sure how all of this will turn out, but sentiments such as Holder’s, who, in response to Section 215, said:

That’s one that I think has certainly generated more controversy, I believe, than the other two. And I think that the examination, the questions that I need to ask people in the field and who have been using that, I’d want to know as much as I possibly can. But as I said, the tools that we have been given by Congress in FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] are important ones. And so I would look at all three of these and make the determination as to whether or not I will be able to support them. But I would expect that I would.

are quite discouraging.  Without reconsidering and reworking the Patriot Act—one of the Bush administration’s most controversial, invasive, and violating legacies—Obama’s claims at distancing himself from the Bush administration will appear rather empty and acts such as shutting down Gitmo will seem to be nothing more than hypocritical gestures.

Isolate but Preserve: Civil Liberties in Russia
January 12, 2009

As a bit of a conceptual bridge between the global issues in libraries I’ve been discussing since the fall and intellectual freedom, which I’ll be focusing on for the next couple of months (there will be much overlap, I assure you), I’d like direct us back to Russia and to this article, by Ellen Barry, from yesterday’s NYTimes.  In particular, I’d like to highlight this passage:

“After presenting himself to the world as a liberal modernizer, President Medvedev has prioritized one major reform — lengthening the presidential term to six years. Last week, he signed a law eliminating jury trials for ‘crimes against the state,’ and pending legislation would expand the definition of treason.”

One of the suggestions for our class on intellectual freedom is to, aptly, read a banned book.  How many librarians do you know who proudly wear their buttons that say “I Read Banned Books”?  I certainly have one of those, in bright purple, and it’s pinned onto my book bag, presently.

It does no good to start a contrapuntal conversation about the differences in intellectual freedom in Russia and the U.S., as Russia always winds up being demonized.  But what if we transferred the idea of proudly proclaiming our having read a banned book to fit this issue above.  I’m not saying that librarians and intellectuals in Russia should start wearing buttons that say “I’m for Treason,” but what about “I Heart Civil Liberties” or “Where’s the Jury?”  I know that these slogans are not as catchy, and, perhaps, my analogy is a stretch.  Does anyone have any better slogans (I’d love suggestions)?  Maybe the tried-and-true “I Read Banned Books” will help, yet, another group in rallying behind the struggle for intellectual freedom.

Later in the article, a think-tank pundit states that, “I just think [the Russian leaders] don’t trust what they can’t control.”  Trust, especially for governments, is often a troublesome issue, as it takes openness and a willingness to put up with criticism from the people—for it is only when all people are free that trust can truly exist.  Attempting to destroy freedoms, ideas, expressions, etc., is only going to push “trust” farther away.  Intellectual freedom would foster this trust, which, in turn, would give continued life to intellectual freedom.

It’s unfortunate that Russian officials continue to choose intimidation and restriction over trust and openness, as this avenue has continually been proven to be ineffective throughout the country’s history.  In 1934, Osip Mandelstam wrote a poem called “Stalin Epigram,” which criticized the leader.  Stalin, in response, sent Mandelstam to a labor camp with instructions to “isolate but preserve.”  What Stalin meant was kill the idea–the art, the poem–but not the man (this was considered a “light” punishment).  The opposite happened, as Mandelstam died a few years later; yet, his poetry lived on, preserved by his wife, Nadezhda, who, knowing that any physical copy of Mandselstam’s work would be seized and destroyed, committed his entire body of work to memory.

You can’t kill an idea.  Intellectual freedom often means fighting and advocating as much for the person with the idea as for the idea itself.  We must continually remind ourselves of this.  So, choose your slogan.  Perhaps, mine will be: “I Read Osip Mandelstam.”