Thursday, May 3, 2007

Perspectives on Liberty

Panel discussion with Bill Newman, Peter Chase, and Rob Weisman.
[I'm paraphrasing everything below. Any and all direct quotes will be in quote marks.]

We have been here before, and it's back again. Librarians are one of the keepers of freedom in a democratic society and we are one of many groups under pressure to compromise civil liberties.

Q&A from the MLA Intellectual Freedom Committee & then from audience questions

How has the concept of civil liberties changed since 09/11/01?
Chase: Many libraries make sure that they are no longer collecting/keeping patron records. But it's the direct attacks against librarians that came out of nowhere. He detailed the situation he experienced and told the story of the Newton Public Library. Frightening, frightening stuff, but acts of courage throughout the profession.
Weisman: In journalism and newspapers, there have been many changes. The commitment to get at the truth is still there, but the technology has made it both easier and more difficult to get at the truth. Less $$$ from advertising means fewer staff, and an emphasis on sensationalism and spin means that closed-mouthedness is common. The availability of sources and of reporters is a challenge now, more than ever.
Newman: "How many of you have had the experience of sending an email and pausing for a moment, wondering if someone somewhere could intercept this and misuse it?" Half the audience raised their hands, including me. However, he's going on an on about The Government knowing everything and 'winning.' Personally, I self-censor because of the risk of individuals using my words or holding them against me. The question is, who are you more afraid of? Your government or the people around you? And isn't it scary that we're asking this question at all?

What about the Patriot Act?
Newman: Patriot Act substantially and detrimentally affects communications between people. The technology makes the interception and storage of communications and the ability to create and store data about individuals remarkably easy, and we should all be scared.
Weisman: One fact is that it's getting harder to get non-US students and workers here to contribute successfully, in the private sector and universities.
Chase: Patrons are aware (in CT) of the fragility of library records and how easily it is for government agents to access records.

[Newman is going on and on. He's overplaying the case. He's angry and frustrated and he's talking to a sympathetic audience, but the hard sell is putting my hackles up. I agree with him, and he's making me angry at him because he's shoving it down my throat instead of presenting me with information and letting me make my own decisions.]

Weisman: How are reporters working to keep source information secure? They're doing nothing different than they have in the past, at least at The Globe.
Chase: Because government officials can institute gag orders on members of information professions, those officials can then go around and promote the Patriot Act and other government actions while those under the gag order can't offer up objections without threat of arrest.

Weisman: It's also about getting the information out there.
Newman: The government's job is to keep us safe. But finding terrorists is like finding a needle in a haystack, and the government response was to make the haystack hundreds of times larger. National Security is important, but intelligent national security is even more important.

Newman: The people we serve trust us, and we should continue to deserve their trust by protecting that information whenever and however possible. Our patrons trust us also to be discrete about their information, even beyond governmental questioning.

Will a change in leadership change the current situation?
Chase: the Patriot Act provides enormous power, and that leadership may just want to keep that power. They might be more ethical about using and abusing that power, but they may want to want to keep it.

Does protecting children trump protecting individual privacy?
Court orders exist to protect individuals while allowing investigative process to keep going on.

What gives each of you hope?
Chase: We have a lot of hope. Senator Leahey of VT asked questions of the FBI Director about how many libraries had been asked to give up information about patrons after seeing VT librarians and students up in arms about this situation.
Weisman: History has shown that we've gotten through time periods like this before. The dynamic nature of the US economy has depended on it being an open society, and I'm confident that we'll get through this one too.
Newman: The potential for hearings in Congress exist, and that things may get disclosed even inadvertently there. There is cause for optimism that the Congress is following the people. There is a genuine and justifiable suspicion of the government, based on economic issues, that are going to get people thinking about what the government is doing and asking questions.

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