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Someone to Watch Over What You Read

Late last month, the press reported that FBI agents had begun to visit libraries across the nation seeking the reading records of individuals suspected of having ties to terrorist organizations. Such searches, which require warrants and have also included bookstores and newspapers, are now legal under the U.S.A. Patriot Act signed by President George W. Bush last October, which greatly increased the surveillance powers of the federal government. Concerned about how this latest chapter in Uncle Sam’s ongoing morph into Big Brother could affect free speech, civil libertarians and many librarians have expressed opposition to the searches. But details of the government’s move are scarce: The Patriot Act also has a gag provision that makes it a crime for librarians to reveal any information about what, or how much, the FBI wants to see.

When asked if the G-men had been around to see them, directors of the public libraries of Albany, Schenectady, Troy and Saratoga Springs all said they had not. And while no news may be goods news, umbrage among local librarians over the searches is still high. Calling the confidentiality of patrons’ reading records “a bastion of the First Amendment,” Albany Public Library Director Jeffrey Cannell noted that under the Patriot Act, it is now much easier for the government to get a search warrant for a library.

Harry Dutcher, director of the Saratoga Public Library, echoed Cannell, saying, “The confidentiality of our patrons’ reading records is very important to us.” He questioned the legality of the searches under state confidentiality laws, and added that terrorists would probably be more interested in university libraries for their science literature than public libraries, anyway.

Reading records in the Capital Region, however, are better protected from prying eyes than you might think. Dutcher explained that usual practice in most local public libraries is to keep a record of who has borrowed a book only when the book is out. Upon its return, the library’s computer software automatically deletes the record. The books thus leave no electronic footprint.

Cannell also forwarded a statement on the FBI searches from Maurice J. Freedman, president of the American Library Association. After acknowledging the importance of the war against terrorism, it says, “The American Library Association is concerned about the provisions of the U.S.A. Patriot Act that allow the FBI to seek information on Americans’ reading habits, as if it were possible to determine what someone might do based upon what he or she has read.

“This wide-ranging federal surveillance of library records is a troubling development that will have a chilling effect on the public’s use of library resources. When someone checks out a book or looks at the Internet, it does not mean they agree with the information they find or that they intend to act on that information. Librarians will continue to fight for their patrons’ First Amendment right to read and receive information without government interference.”

—Glenn Weiser

School Without Sweat

The New York State Labor- Religion Coalition recently issued report cards to 35 Capital Region school districts based on the progress toward the implementation of school policies diminishing or banning the purchase of goods produced by child labor or under sweatshop conditions. The Albany City School District was one of seven districts given the highest ranking, distinguishing itself by formally adopting an informed-choice purchasing policy.

The Labor-Religion Coalition decided to issue the report cards this year in response to Gov. George Pataki’s signing of the “informed choice” purchasing law, also known as the sweat-free purchasing law.

“The law allows school districts to purchase goods from the lowest ‘responsible’ bidder,” said Brian O’Shaughnessy, Labor-Religion Coalition director. “I believe that New York is the only state in the country that applies the conditions under which goods are produced to a manufacturer’s responsibility.”

Though the law does not require school districts to make informed purchasing choices, it allows them to make moral decisions with economic implications for their constituents; the school districts that take part may not be able to purchase from the vendor with the lowest costs.

“It’s not clear whether costs have gone up because we are purchasing from manufacturers that produce sweat-free, or if costs have just gone up in general,” said Beth Labunski, the Albany school district’s purchasing agent.

O’Shaughnessy said many studies show that companies known to exploit sweatshop labor do not necessarily offer lower prices; they may spend more money in other areas like marketing and advertising, for example. According to O’Shaughnessy, the cost of labor accounts for only 2 to 5 percent of a product’s final cost.

“We hope that other school districts will begin a sweat-free school policy this summer,” O’Shaughnessy said. “To do the right thing will not greatly increase a school district’s expenses.”

—T. D.

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