Tuesday, September 30, 2008

MyTurn: Protecting privacy rights in libraries

By Judah Hamer • September 24, 2008

We appreciate Eileen Haupt's commitment to her family and to libraries evidenced by her opinion piece, "My Turn: Safety trumps libraries' privacy" (Aug. 16). However, we wish to correct some misleading information regarding the new Vermont law protecting the privacy of library records. The new law is not about usurping parental control, and librarians do not consider parents "the enemy."

Respect for patron privacy is a fundamental value long recognized in the library code of ethics, and in federal and local legislation and case law. For decades, Vermont has exempted library records from disclosure under the public records act. However, conflicting interpretations of the public records exemption highlighted the need for clarification. The new law makes it clear that patron records are confidential and can be shared with a third party only in response to a judicial order or warrant. It protects the right of Vermonters to freely seek information with protections granted in more than 40 states.

The law also allows a library to release information to custodial parents of patrons under age 16, a compromise reached by legislators after hearing a variety of viewpoints from parents. Librarians have always encouraged parents to be involved in their children's use of the library, to talk with them about what they're reading, and help them choose appropriate materials. Nothing in the new law prevents that. But sometimes children and youths must deal with serious issues -- like child abuse, alcoholic parents, or health questions -- and they need good information. We want them to be comfortable getting that information in the library. That's why the Vermont Library Association advocated for privacy protection for patrons of all ages.

In her letter, Ms. Haupt suggests that librarians impeded the Brooke Bennett investigation. The truth is that librarians were eager to assist the police, and we are deeply troubled by the way events unfolded. When a detective first arrived at the library at 4:30 p.m. and asked to take library computers, the librarian informed him of the library's board-approved and legally binding policy, which required a valid court order to release public computers. The officer agreed and said he would go obtain the order. Instead, he returned with four additional police officials and proceeded to argue for an hour with the librarians and the library board chair, employing tactics that clearly violate the core values of the Vermont State Police. The police officials left and finally returned at 11 p.m. with a court order.

The Bennett case raises important questions: Why didn't the officer obtain a court order before going to the library? Why did five police officials waste valuable time trying to intimidate librarians into violating a legally binding policy? And after leaving the second time, why did it take the police so long to secure a court order when a judge is always available?

Librarians are entrusted with protecting the private information of thousands of innocent community members who use library computers. When law enforcement officials believe they need access to information, it is their responsibility to seek the approval of a judge who can make a rapid, impartial decision about constitutional matters that protect all of us: due process, probable cause and privacy.

In a library, the right to privacy means the right to open inquiry. Individuals must be able to seek information about any subject without fear of judgment, criticism or scrutiny of others. Freedom of speech is meaningless without the freedom to receive information; they are the underpinnings of a healthy democracy. While many Vermont libraries already provided confidentiality protection, the new law provides greater assurance to patrons across Vermont that their reading habits and research interests are private matters that they alone can decide to share with others. It's just one of the many ways we continue to serve our communities.

Judah Hamer of Cornwall is president of the Vermont Library

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