Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, June 25, 2002


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Remember that gag order on bookstores and libraries that scared everybody witless back in February (see #303)?

Well, it's here, quietly being enforced, and if nothing is done to stop it, I bet we're going to see a lot of libraries dumping records by the ton very soon.

Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that "the FBI is visiting libraries nationwide and checking the reading records of people it suspects of having ties to terrorists or plotting an attack."

I love that word "visiting" - "ransacked" would be a better term.

Of course the FBI has been trying to get libraries to give up records for years, so this part is nothing new. In the past - as in the '50s and '60s, when the FBI found all those Communists hiding in the stacks - the press made such a stink about this clear abuse of Constitutional protections that the FBI stopped the practice (or said it did) by the '70s.

But now we have the USA Patriot Act, which gives FBI agents sweeping new powers to "demand from bookstores and libraries the names of books bought or borrowed by anyone suspected of involvement in 'international terrorism' or 'clandestine activities,' " as Nat Hentoff wrote in the Village Voice.

And, even worse, the gag order: Not only are librarians required to give up these records, they are prohibited from talking to the press about it. "We've heard from them [the FBI] and that's all I can tell you," a library director in Florida told the AP in yesterday's story.

One suburban library in Chicago was "visited" by the FBI but had no record of the person being investigated. Why that library? "Federal prosecutors allege Global Relief Foundation, an Islamic charity based in the Chicago suburb, has ties to Osama bin Laden's terror network."

And why libraries in Florida? Why, a lot of the 9/11 hijackers took flying lessons there. Phoenix and San Diego libraries are surely next, if they haven't been hit already.

How many libraries have been "visited?" The University of Illinois conducted a survey in February and concluded that "85 libraries had been asked by federal or local law enforcement officers for information about patrons related to Sept. 11," the AP reports. By now the number must be far higher.


When I wrote about the gag rule in February, the only good news was that the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression were contacting First Amendment lawyers like mad in the hopes of shoring up some protections of our protections, as it were.

But now with the gag order actively imposed, it's hard to know what can be said out loud, what can be acted against or who can risk speaking in a public forum about what looks like a quietly spreading poison on American civil liberties.

Last week, however, the ALA Council - the governing body of the American Library Association - issued a statement on privacy that I think is very brave and quite gripping, even for the most sophisticated civil libertarian.

Without ever mentioning FBI incursions, this statement simply reiterates that "privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association"; that "protecting user privacy and confidentiality" is central to the mission of libraries; and that it is "imperative" for all libraries to "guard against impediments to open inquiry" as well as to "cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgement of free expression and free access to ideas."

And here's the best part: "Users have the right to be informed what policies and procedures govern the amount and retention of personally identifiable information, why that information is necessary for the library, and what the user can do to maintain his or her privacy." In other words we have a RIGHT to know what records the library keeps on us, and what it does with those records.

Ah, a big kiss and hug to the ALA! If you are a library user, you can "expect" to have whatever information you provide "protected and kept private and confidential by anyone with direct or indirect access to that information." Love you more!


When First Amendment experts talk about Constitutional protections, the word "chill" often emerges, because the big fear is that even the hint of any abridgment of free speech, free thought, and free association will drive people away from engaging in free speech, free thought and free association.

As the ALA puts it, "when users recognize or fear that their privacy or confidentiality is compromised, true freedom of inquiry no longer exists." Also jeopardized is the practice of librarians to leave the user "in control of as many choices as possible. These include decisions about the selection of, access to, and use of information."

If users can't control everything about how they select and use information, bingo: "Lack of privacy and confidentiality has a chilling effect on users' choices." They'll stop using the library entirely once they stop believing they're "free from any unreasonable intrusion into or surveillance of their lawful library use."

Bravo again, you ALA dearhearts - this stuff should be plastered all over the FBI offices, if not the agents themselves.


I think two things may happen with the ALA as a result of these "visits."

First, the statement issued by the ALA Council refers many times to "the courts" and existing law - how "the courts have established a First Amendment right to receive information in a publicly funded library"; how "the courts have upheld the right to privacy based on the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution"; how "many states provide guarantees of privacy in their constitutions and statute law"; how "numerous decisions in case law have defined and extended rights to privacy."

Maybe I'm too hopeful but could this be the beginning of a huge court battle challenging the FBI or the USA Patriot Act, with the ALA in the vanguard as one of many plaintiffs?

Second, the new maxim for librarians is: When in doubt, dump your records - at least that's what Judith Krug of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom is telling librarians, bless her. Says the AP: "Krug tells worried librarians who call that they should keep only the records they need and should discard records that would reveal which patron checked out a book and for how long."


Attorney General John Ashcroft has often warned the American public that you can't enjoy complete civil rights and expect to be safe from terrorists at the same time. Something's got to give, he says: Since we know terrorists are operating in this country and are planning more acts of mass destruction, the American people have got to give the FBI real powers to investigate.

That statement often quiets protesters, and even I agree it's an important issue to discuss. But a big question behind all of it is this: What do FBI agents think they're going to find in library records?

Let's say I'm Fawaz Yahya Al-Rabeei, one of the top 22 terrorists listed by the FBI. How I love my library card! It's one of the great things about living in America - you get to comb the stacks for books like "The Islamic Fanatic Guidebook: How to Become a Suicide Bomber and Get Your Pilot License in One Fell Swoop" by O.B.Laden.

Of course I've changed my name to Frank Albert and I use the wrong address, so the only way the FBI can find me is by listing "The Islamic Fanatic Guidebook" and other "suspicious" titles. Well, I'd like to know who's going to decide what's "suspicious" and what isn't, but you know the FBI's never gonna tell us that.

I do remember those classic examples that have tested our belief in the First Amendment before - books on how to make a Molotov cocktail, remember that? Or how to commit suicide, "How to Kill, Volumes 1-8"; how to make an atomic bomb and of course, "Advanced Techniques of Clandestine Psychedelic and Amphetamine Manufacture" by Uncle Fester, and "The Construction and Operation of Clandestine Drug Laboratories" by Jack B. Nimble.

[These last you may remember were the basis of police "visits" to The Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, where owner Joyce Meskis refused to turn over sales records and was eventually vindicated by the Colorado Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the bookstore's right to protect the privacy of readers. Who knows if she'd win today.]

In any case, what would be suspicious about "The Islamic Fanatic Guidebook" anyway? If it were in the library, you can bet MANY people would take it out, because many people would want to know how terrorists operate, and many people might use a book like that for their 1) newspaper column 2) term paper 3) speech 4) interview 5) bedtime reading 6) none of your business.

And let's say FBI agents get records on the Global Relief Foundation, that Islamic charity mentioned above: Suppose this charity borrows "The Islamic Fanatic Guidebook." What does that mean? I can think of a hundred reasons users might borrow it that wouldn't indict them as having "ties to Osama bin Laden" - a donor might have told them it's a hoot, for example. That wouldn't remove from suspicion any member of the Global Relief Foundation: Remember what we learned from the McCarthy Era - guilt by association is infallible.

I wouldn't say it's 100% stupid for the FBI to look for terrorists in the public library. Butit does seem obvious that this kind of search is highly unlikely to yield any real information. Surely agents are better off turning to other priorities. #1 might be: Quit Pouting and Make up with the CIA. #2: Keep your eye on *known* terrorists - who knows? They might not have a library card.


But if it's 99.9% stupid for FBI agents to harangue libraries, why do they do it? Why have they, as Ashcroft and FBI director Robert Mueller announced a few weeks ago, sought and been given the power to go after churches, political parties and the Internet as well as libraries and bookstores?

The reason, said Ashcroft, is that under the present FBI guidelines, agents "cannot surf the web the way you and I can." Yes, we've heard that: FBI computers are so antiquated that agents can't do a two-word search. Perhaps that should be Priority #3.

All right, pardon me: What he means is, the FBI is restricted from snooping in ways that might violate the Constitution, so Ashcroft and Mueller want to get rid of Constitutional protections altogether.

How will they do it? The process the FBI uses to gain access to records in the library - and soon, presumably, in churches, political parties, Internet, etc. - is this, as AP reports:

"First, the FBI must obtain a search warrant from a court that meets *in secret* [my asterisks, can't help it] to hear the agency's case. The FBI must show it has reason to suspect that a person is involved with a terrorist or a terrorist plot - far less difficult than meeting the tougher legal standards of probable cause, required for traditional search warrants or reasonable doubt, required for convictions.

"With the warrant, FBI investigators can visit a library and gain immediate access to the records."

And because of the gag rule, the librarian or bookseller or minister or political party member can't say a thing.



That story last Thursday by Martin Arnold in the New York Times about the decline of gay and lesbian bookstores was really a riler.

Not only did Arnold make it sound as though all independent bookstores are hanging by a thread; he fell for that old sop that gay bookstores have done their job too well - they've helped the gay community assimilate, and now chain bookstores carry enough gay books to drive the gay ones out of business.

Ed Hermance of Giovanni's Room in Philadelphia fired back a hot letter of protest in response. As of this writing the Times hasn't run it, though. Gee, wonder why. here it is:

Dear Editor,

Today's article, "Gay Stores Feel the Pinch of Customers' Liberation," by Martin Arnold, gives a false impression of life in the American gay bookstore. Mr. Arnold mentions only two stores as doing poorly, one in NYC, the other in Houston, both owned by the same man. He says there are two more gay stores in NYC but does not say that either of them is doing other than fine.

The reasons your reporter gives for the asserted waning of the gay bookstore are the usual litany: the chain stores and the Internet are driving all the independent bookstores out of business. He reports that 9/11 had an effect on retail sales. What else is new? The news is that gay bookstores in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and Atlanta (just to take the East Coast) have all survived the worst that the chains and online behemoths have been able to do with all their billions of dollars invested and lost.

Your reporter quotes a gay store owner complaining about the aging of the gay reading public. As the owner of Giovanni's Room in Philadelphia, I can report vigorous interest among young people. Young writers attract young readers, so it is not surprising that young authors such as Christopher Rice and Chastity Bono pack our house for their readings.

As one of the few gay places that welcomes gay and lesbian youth under drinking age, our store is part of the circuit for many young people. It is true that they do not spend as much money here as older people, yet they clearly find the contents of this store fascinating.

The most satisfying aspect of this store, my life's work, is that there are competent young people who want to continue this work for their and their generation's own needs.

Why do our customers support our stores? Better, more knowledgeable service and vastly larger inventories in our subjects. You cannot expect a chain store employee, even a gay one, to know who the leader of the Jewish underground in Nazi Berlin was, partly because a chain store would never have had his autobiography on display. Someone just coming out will find more and better information and more certainly a positive response in a gay store than in a chain store.

It will be several generations before the social situation of gay men and lesbians will have changed enough for us not to feel the need to support our own institutions, places where we can find the materials we need to continue to change the world and the books, films, and music that we enjoy more than most other people. Gay stores have a long future before us.

Sincerely yours,

Ed Hermance, Owner
Giovanni's Room



Every month I have the great joy of talking about books and book issues with Laura Flanders, whose radio program is hosted by Working Assets Radio on the NPR affiliate, KALW in San Francisco.

Laura is a savvy, articulate, witty and immensely thoughtful interviewer who unapologetically takes a progressive point of view and thus acts as a welcome antidote to the Rush Limbaughs and Michael Savages of the airwaves. Best of all she welcomes wide-ranging discussion from readers who astound us with their depth of knowledge and upstart ways (they sometimes disagree!).

Tomorrow we'll be talking about the FBI and its "visits" to libraries, the status of gay and lesbian bookstores like Giovanni's Room above and other hot subjects.

You can listen to the live program online via RealAudio by clicking here: http://www.workingassetsradio.com/live

And you can participate from wherever you are from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. PST by calling the program at 415-841-4134 (Bay Area) or toll free at 866-798-TALK.

Laura's on every weekday at 10-11 a.m., and the subjects she covers are important, accessible and challenging. For more information click over to Working Assets Radio at http://www.workingassetsradio.com.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding the changed passages in the New York Regents statewide tests (see #328), I would like to suggest that this situation is more than a case of "political correctness run amok." That would only be a matter of bureaucrats blindly following some imposed speech code, unable to question what they are doing. Instead, this shows the underlying problem with political correctness. When taken to extremes, it results in tokenism.

Preparers for The Regents deliberately included authors of different races, cultures, creeds, and genders, but their attempt at diversity was undermined by education officials who want these authors to be seen as anything but politically offensive. The tests included I.B. Singer, but officials took out all the references to the Jewish experience which his entire canon and fame is built upon, so they seem to want a Jew in name only. Worse is the implication of the change to Ernesto Galarza's memoir, "Barrio Boy." When they change such perceived insensitivities as "gringo lady" to "American lady," I would suggest we have another case of white intellectuals wanting their non-white oppressed peoples to be uncorrupted except by white influence.

It's admirable to present many voices, but criminal to suggest these voices only say what a higher political authority believes is proper. In this the Far Left is no different than the Far Right.

Stephen S. Power
Senior Editor
John Wiley & Sons

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In your LETTERS, Richard Labonte wrote:

"Our goal was to carry 'everything by, for, and about' the lesbian and gay community, and Dorothy Bryant's book, 'A Day in San Francisco,' was all of that back then. Most of our customers respected our stock, whether or not it was to their taste. If we were being attacked by anyone in those days for what we stocked, it was usually women upset that we sold the s/m magazine 'On Our Backs' . . . "

In the interests of historical accuracy, "On Our Backs" was [is? don't know if it's still in publication; I'm not the market they published for] NOT an s/m magazine. It was/is a blatantly, unapologetically sexual magazine by lesbians, for lesbians, which was sex-positive for all forms of lesbian sexuality, including the s/m aspects. I will not presume to judge the motivations for those who wanted it removed, but it is reasonable to conclude that some of them were hostile to any overt expression of sexuality.

Michael J. Lowrey,
hardcore feminist AND anti-censorship fanatic

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Pat, come on, please! You say here, "In #327 I suggest it's the Christian right...". You are correct, you suggested in #327 and now in #329 but offer no support yea or nay. You make the statement, people read it, take it in and assume it to be the truth. Prove to me for example that it was the Christian Right that asked for the elimination of the word 'slaves'. Not that the person asking for the removal was a Christian, that would be too easy, but that is was the Christian Right, the group or something that looks like a group.

Could it be that it was by a black person, or a black group or a white person or a white group thinking they're being sensitive to blacks?

All of this is crazy! The most emotional reaction students have to tests is when they realize they haven't a clue to the answers because they were spending too much time trying to be cool and get in the pants of Suzy (which these days is not too difficult because someone wrote a book saying it's OK for sex at any age) instead of studying. Duh!

There, now I'm calm.

Arden Olson

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I have a daughter in her late 20s now, and having been a staunch feminist from Day 1 of the movement, was flabbergasted when she and her age-group of friends denounced "feminism" as being self-centered and biased. What? There ensued a very lively discussion and the outcome was that we all agreed that the term "humanist" better described what "feminism" really IS - but the word has become such a "turn-off" for a lot of people, and has angered and turned many males against women because they feel turned-against and hated, even, that the younger crowd, while reaping the benefits of the feminist movement (!), just wants nothing to do with that WORD.

They BELIEVE and LIVE, however, a feminist-based life - it's just the word that they have rejected. So, "humanist" has become the byword in our home - and it does describe the basic tenets of feminism, as James O'Reilly wrote, the WORD/TERM " 'feminist' is implicit in being a good human being - someone who honors and cherishes the other sex, and out of that innate respect, strives to understand what motivates the clearest and purest intentions of the other." I know the term "humanist" isn't new - but it had new relevance for me when 6 late teen to middle twenty-something aged females all turned at once and confronted me with THEIR point of view - which I had assumed would be the same as mine, knowing that both I and all their mothers shared the same feminist backgrounds!

Leslie Adams, Hawaii

Dear Holt Uncensored:

You wrote: " 'Microlending,' which once made no sense at all to Western bankers, has been so successful in South Asia that it has now spread to over 50 countries, says Freedman, including Guatemala, China, Bangladesh and India."

We have such a program here in Massachusetts — usually goes under the name of Working Capital. At least on the local scene there is business support included. Loans start at a very small amount and are for business costs. Loan must be repaid before another is taken out. It has been very successful in some cases.

Sally Spooner

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

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