A lawsuit filed by an unnamed member of the American Library Association in Connecticut brings out in the open the Bush administration’s efforts to monitor our reading habits under the USA Patriot Act. The suit comes at the same time as a House-Senate conference committee is moving to renew the act, passed by Congress in October 2001.

Section 215 of the Act gives the executive branch the authority to demand that libraries and bookstores turn over their records on patron reading habits when such information is supposedly needed for an antiterrorism investigation. It’s a felony under the act for a library or bookstore employee to publicly discuss such government demands. The American Library Association, booksellers’ associations and civil libertarians have helped to launch several pieces of legislation to overturn this provision.

In the Connecticut case, library records were demanded by the FBI under another section of the Patriot Act, one that expands the use of “National Security Letters.” These documents allow the government to investigate possible foreign government operations such as espionage. They can be issued without the approval of an independent judge. The Patriot Act extends their use, in effect allowing the executive branch simply to issue its own warrants. But last year, a federal judge in New York ruled that this practice violates the Constitution. The government is appealing that case.

Little is known about the Connecticut case, because the law imposes a gag order on the participants. The American Civil Liberties union has asked the judge to lift the order.

The Senate’s bill renewing the Patriot Act, though leaving most of it intact, would explicitly allow recipients of National Security Letters to challenge both the letter and the accompanying gag order, while extending the sunsetting provision of Section 215 for another four years. The House version lacks this moderating language. Civil libertarians, while pushing for the Senate language to be preserved, also stress that the entire Patriot Act needs to be repealed.

The history of the librarian profession in this country reveals an unsuspected feistiness, counter to stereotypes of librarians as socially conservative people who wear their glasses on chains and their hair in buns and go about talking in whispers.

During the McCarthy era anticommunist witch-hunts of the 1940s and 1950s, congressional committees persecuted a number of librarians who refused to provide information on library patrons’ reading habits. At that time, the government claimed it needed the information to investigate possible cases of Soviet espionage. The librarians rightly suspected that the real purpose was to compile dossiers on people’s political views. And last June, the librarians’ whisper rose to a roar in the administration’s ear when the American Library Association convention voted to condemn the Iraq war.