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Librarians' Assembly Considers USA PATRIOT Act

The USA PATRIOT Act, passed by Congress after the events of September 11, 2001, expands the power of federal law enforcement agencies when investigating cases of foreign intelligence and international terror, but does not radically alter existing legislation. As stressed at the fall meeting of the Librarians' Assembly, held Friday, December 13, at the Gutman Conference Center, the information available to federal agencies under this Act has always been available by subpoena. The most significant impact is the increased possibility of government agencies invoking the Act, fully named Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, to gather information for ongoing investigations from libraries and other institutions.

A panel, moderated by Jeffrey Horrell, associate librarian of Harvard College for collections, and including Kevin Casey from the Office of Government and Community Affairs, Heather Quay from the Office of the General Counsel, and Kevin Regan of the Harvard University Police Department, discussed the legal ramifications of the Act, dispelled misconceptions about compliance, and offered guidelines for handling requests for information by federal law enforcement officers.

Casey addressed the inherent difficulties the University faces in trying to fulfill its mission as an open forum for people and ideas while at the same time trying to fulfill its responsibility to the government to assist in matters of national security. He assured the audience that Harvard and peer institutions are working diligently with legislators in Washington to shape terrorism legislation that affects universities.

The message from the General Counsel's office is that librarians should not consider themselves alone when confronted by investigators. Quay dispelled concerns that the Act barred employees from telling their supervisors or other University officials that a search warrant or subpoena has been served. The General Counsel's office can and should be notified in the event that a warrant or subpoena is served. Horrell stressed the importance of library staff notifying their respective administrations, and suggested that libraries be proactive in establishing procedures so that if served, they are prepared to respond appropriately. Quay also underscored the fact that the information that can be obtained via the USA PATRIOT Act has always been accessible to the authorities upon presentation of a subpoena.

Regan, on behalf of the HUPD, reiterated that library staff are not alone when served with a warrant. HUPD can be at any University location within minutes and will authenticate investigators' identification and stand by during the search. He also informed the group that HUPD and the General Counsel's office coordinate their efforts when dealing with investigators.

Audio tapes of this discussion are available at the Harvard University Archives. Contact Andrea Goldstein, reference archivist, at 5-2461 for details. In addition, OGC has posted guidelines on inquiries from government and regulatory authorities at

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Last modified on Wednesday, January 15, 2003.