Edward Snowden, the Patriot Act, and the ALA

By Jessica Jochum

The concern for patron privacy is a tale as old as time. Well, almost. The Code of Ethics for Librarians, published in 1939, states “It is the librarian’s obligation to treat as confidential any private information obtained through contact with library patrons”. 1 It’s no wonder that when the Snowden controversy emerged in 2013 that the American Library Association took a stance. However, within 24 hours, that position wavered.

In 2013, Edward Snowden released thousands of classified government documents revealing NSA surveillance programs. The debate encompassing the controversy often begs the question – is he a hero, or not? Did Edward Snowden do the right thing? The ALA Council issued a resolution on June 30th, 2013 supporting Edward Snowden. The resolution says that the ALA “recognizes Edward Snowden as a whistleblower who, in releasing information that documents government attacks on privacy, free speech, and freedom of association, has performed a valuable service in launching a national dialogue about transparency, domestic surveillance, and over classification”. 2

However, the next day on July 1st, the resolution was revised and took out any mention of Edward Snowden.  The new resolution urges the United States Congress and Obama to “reform our nation’s climate of secrecy, over classification, and secret law regarding national security and surveillance” and “reaffirms its unwavering support for the fundamental principles that are the foundation of our free and democratic society”. 3 While the core ideas of privacy remain, the choice to remove any mention of Edward Snowden in the revised resolution has not gone unnoticed.

Why, in the matter of a day, did the American Library Association revise their position? The idea, the “myth”, of neutrality comes to mind. Robert Jensen makes it very clear in his article The Myth of the Neutral Professional that neutrality is impossible. You will always have a stance on any issue – even not taking a stance, actually, is a stance in itself. Yet, the ALA seems a little shaky on taking a non-neutral standing when publicly supporting Edward Snowden. Perhaps supporting him would have been too controversial. Maybe it would have been crossing the political lines too much. Possibly, supporting whistleblowers is great in theory, but not when it applies to an individual’s personal case. Whatever the true reason, the ALA focused their resolution more so on the importance of privacy as a whole and swept Edward Snowden under the rug.

Regardless of their seemingly “neutral” opinion of Snowden (though, we know in reality it isn’t neutral at all), the ALA has not had such a wavering stance on all controversial subjects. The ALA is extremely vocal in regards to patron privacy, especially when it comes to the Patriot Act. The Patriot Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2001. Before the Patriot Act, 48 states had laws protecting library users’ information, including search histories and circulation records. Information would only be released if there was a court order. 4 After the Patriot Act (particularly Section 215) was signed into law, that information was easily accessible to government agents. “Third-party holders of your financial, library, travel, video rental, phone, medical, church, synagogue, and mosque records can be searched without your knowledge or consent, providing the government says it’s trying to protect against terrorism”. 5

It did not take long for the ALA to get involved. ALA President Barbara Stripling (role served 2013-2014) says in a 2013 open letter to members of the organization:

When we [the ALA] spoke out in 2001 against the passage of the PATRIOT Act, we were concerned about Section 215, a provision of the law that allowed the government powers to obtain ‘business records and other tangible things’ from suspected terrorists. We were fearful that the government would come into libraries without warning and take library records on individual patrons without reasonable suspicion. Libraries were one of the first groups to publicly oppose the bill, and many legislators and privacy experts have noted that Congress would not have understood the chilling impact on privacy if librarians had not brought it to the nation’s attention. Librarians were so vocal in their opposition to the law that Section 215 was called the ‘library provision.’ We could not have imagined then what is happening today. Today, in spite of the leak allegations, the government continues to use the ‘library provision’ to vacuum up private communication records of Americans on a massive scale.”6

In 2001, the ALA teamed up with the American Association of Law Libraries and Association of Research Libraries to write a letter to Congress voicing their concerns about the Patriot Act. These concerns included the expansion of access to business records, education institution records, and the expansion of trace devices to the Internet. 7 In 2003, the ALA issued “Resolution on the USA Patriot Act and Related Measures That Infringe on the Rights of Library Users” 8 and later “Resolution on the USA Patriot Act and Libraries” in 2005. 9 The American Library Association has not remained silent when it comes to the Patriot Act. Far from it.

As of June 1st, 2015 Section 215 of the Patriot Act has expired. Thankfully. Even better, on June 2nd, 2015 the USA Freedom Act was signed into law (and librarians rejoiced!). The Freedom Act, loudly advocated for by the ALA, would limit the scope of information the NSA and government agents could receive. 10 It definitely would not solve all of our privacy concerns, but it is a step in the right direction.

With the amount of advocacy against the Patriot Act and for patron privacy, it doesn’t make sense why the American Library Association revised its June 2013 resolution and removed its public support for Edward Snowden. It seems hypocritical to advocate against the Patriot Act, and not openly support Snowden. The reasoning behind it is undoubtedly political. The ALA has been decidedly non-neutral in their position of patron privacy, and should proudly advocate for those that have helped to further that cause.



  1. “Midwinter Council Minutes,” American Library Association Bulletin 33 no. 2 (1939): 128–129.
  2. Resolution in support of Edward Snowden. (2013, January 29). Retrieved September 20, 2015.
  3. ALA Council passes resolution on whistleblowers; government transparency. (2013, July 2). Retrieved September 22, 2015.
  4. England, D. (n.d.). The patriot act and library records. Retrieved September 22, 2015.
  5. Roller, E. (2013, June 7). This is what section 215 of the patriot act does. Retrieved September 28, 2015.
  6. Wright, J. (2013, July 11). ALA president Barbara Stripling: “Our country needs to find the right balance”. Retrieved September 22, 2015.
  7. Library community statement on proposed anti-terrorism measures. (2001, October 2). Retrieved September 22, 2015.
  8. Resolution on the USA Patriot Act and Related Measures That Infringe on the Rights of Library Users. (2003, January 29).
  9. Resolution on the USA Patriot Act and Libraries. (2005, June 29)
  10. How does the freedom act affect nsa surveillance. (2015, June 3). Retrieved September 22, 2015
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Jessica Jochum

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