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FBI agents walked into libraries looking for suspicious readers more than 200 times in the months after the bombing of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Here’s something they forgot to read on the way in: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Of course, just about the whole Congress forgot it, too, when they passed the USA Patriot Act. Section 215 of the act lets the FBI look at the reading habits of anyone, without probable cause to believe they are involved in criminal acts. The secret court that issues these warrants has a track record of saying yes to the FBI in virtually all cases. This new federal law also conflicts with privacy laws in many states. We used to worry about banned books. Now we can worry about banned people as well. Or, we can do something about it. Many librarians are standing up against the long arm of Big Brother. They are the front-line heroes as the War on Terror evolves into The War on Immigrants and The War on Book Readers. The Patriot Act, mind you, requires librarians not only to give the FBI what it wants, but also to keep quiet about it. Bookstores are next; they have the same deal under the so-called Patriot Act. Bravo to Judith Krug, director of the American Library Association’s office for intellectual freedom. She has a plan. “The only way to overcome this,” Krug told The Miami Herald, “is to act illegally.” Krug and other friends of libraries have suggested shredding records of what patrons read before the FBI comes knocking. Librarians and bookstore owners under siege should also seek the assistance of lawyers to examine any warrant delivered by the FBI. This has become the official position of the library association. Why not take it a step further? Entire communities could help examine such warrants, as a sort of citizens’ militia against government gone awry — the kind of oppressive government against which our ancestors spilled blood. As candidates for Congress visit local communities, they should be asked: “Why did you let this happen?” Or, “What are you going to do to fix it?” In Connecticut recently, librarians and even some politicians celebrated free speech by reading banned books aloud in public schools. Some of the hundreds of books banned illegally in the United States over the years have included Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man” and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Torrington, Conn., Mayor Owen Quinn read a chapter from “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel about race relations, during a celebration of free speech at his local high school. Credit Torrington Library media specialist Robin Magistrali with putting the event together. This is great, but it’s not enough. Our judges need to stand up against the federal government when it tramples our privacy rights. Local libraries must heed the national call for civil disobedience, and ordinary citizens can join in. Libraries were once sanctuaries of the First Amendment. They have been violated by the federal government. It’s up to judges and ordinary citizens to protect these freedoms and stop the book cops at the library and bookstore doors.

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