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In 1731, sixty years before the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Benjamin Franklin founded the first library in America. As evidenced by the First Amendment, the founders of our nation showed their respect for the power of the published word by protecting its creation and dissemination. Early library founders were aware of the tension between personal freedom and governmental control. Thomas Jefferson, whose personal library became the core of the Library of Congress, wrote “There are rights which it is useless to surrender to the government and which governments have yet always been found to invade. These are the rights of thinking and publishing our thoughts by speaking or writing . . .the right of personal freedom.”

On October 25, 2001, Congress approved the USA Patriot Act, which, among other threats to civil liberties, rescinds protection of “any tangible things” that could be useful to an investigation of terrorist or intelligence activities. Librarians immediately recognized the threat this law would pose to maintaining confidentiality of library patrons’ reading records or computer usage logs. Worse still, the Act restricts librarians from disclosing the FBI’s presence, the production of patron records, or the surveillance of library computers once it has occurred. Thus, the public has only recently learned that intensified federal monitoring of public libraries is in fact taking place across the country.

The FBI’s library surveillance creates an atmosphere of secrecy and surveillance that is guaranteed to have chilling repercussions on the cherished climate of intellectual freedom and inquiry so central to our nation. Government surveillance of the books we read trains one to self-censor, thereby stifling creativity and free inquiry. While the First Amendment bars the government from banning books, the library surveillance provisions of the USA Patriot Act circumvent the protections of the First Amendment by threatening to turn readers into suspects. Intimidating readers in such a manner is, in effect, controlling what we read and how we think. Just as the right to publish information is expressly protected by the First Amendment, greater protection should be given to the corollary right to access published information.

The Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics (CCLE) is a nonprofit public education, law, and policy center working in the public interest to foster intellectual freedom and cognitive liberty—the right of each individual to think independently and use the full spectrum of his or her mind. The CCLE contends that freedom of thought and the freedom to read are intertwined. Through the Reader’s Rights Project, the CCLE intends to examine library surveillance as a stricture of intellectual freedom, and focus law, policy and educational attention on the fundamental rights of readers to freely access information.

The Readers' Rights Project seeks to:

  • Raise public awareness of reader’s rights through dissemination of information at local and regional libraries;   
     

  • Draw media attention to the larger implications of surveillance on individual public library users;  
     

  • Collaborate with other organizations who have an interest in First Amendment rights and civil liberties of readers in general, and public library users specifically;
     

  • Collect information concerning the actual scope of the FBI’s library surveillance program (H.R. 3162, Sec. 215); Collect comments from citizens who believe they have been investigated or discriminated against as a result of their reading;
     

  • Analyze the legal rights of readers under the USA Patriot Act, and produce an informative pamphlet explaining the terms of the USA Patriot Act regarding library surveillance and the rights readers may have.