Librarian Who Fought FBI Search to Receive 2005 PEN/Newman’s Own Award
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
PEN American Center has named Joan Airoldi, a librarian and library director in rural Washington State who challenged an FBI effort to search patron records, as the recipient of this year’s prestigious PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award. Ms. Airoldi will receive the $25,000 prize at PEN’s annual Gala on April 20, 2005 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
On June 8, 2004, an FBI agent visited the Deming branch of the Whatcom County Library System in rural Washington, a library not much larger than a family home. The agent demanded the names of all library patrons who had borrowed the book Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America. The FBI made the request after a reader contacted the agency to report that someone had left a handwritten note in the margin of the book that said, “If the things I’m doing is considered a crime then let history be a witness that I am a criminal. Hostility toward America is a religious duty and we hope to be rewarded by God” – a nearly direct quote of a statement Osama Bin Laden made in a 1998 interview.
As a librarian and the Director of the Whatcom County Rural Library District, Joan Airoldi organized and guided the library’s efforts to fight the request, protecting patrons’ right to read what they wish free of government scrutiny. The Deming branch refused to provide information to the visiting agent, and the library system informed the FBI that no information would be released without a subpoena or court order. The library Board then voted to fight any subsequent subpoena in court.
On June 18, a grand jury subpoena was served requesting the names and any other identifying information of patrons who had borrowed the Bin Laden biography since November 15, 2001. At a special meeting of the Board, the library resolved to go ahead with a motion to quash subpoena on the grounds that the request infringed on the First Amendment rights of readers; that libraries have the right to disseminate information freely and confidentially, without the chilling effects of disclosure; and that Washington state’s library confidentiality laws protected the records. Commenting on the subpoena, Airoldi said, “Libraries are a haven where people should be able to seek whatever information they want to pursue without any threat of government intervention.”
On July 14, the library learned that the FBI had withdrawn the grand jury subpoena.
PEN Freedom to Write Program Director Larry Siems said this year’s PEN/Newman’s Own Award selection could not be more timely. “This year Congress will decide whether to extend the provision of the USA PATRIOT Act that undermines the ability of libraries and bookstores to fend off unjustified searches of their records,” Siems said in announcing the award. “What Joan Airoldi and her staff and Board did – standing up to an unwarranted intrusion by federal agents into the privacy of ordinary Americans – was heroic in itself. At the same time, their success vividly illustrates why the protections states and courts have carved out for reading records are so essential.”
“If the FBI had returned not with a Grand Jury subpoena but with a PATRIOT Act order, the library would have been unable to challenge the request in court, and the reading records of law-abiding patrons may well have made their way into FBI files,” he continued. “Had the FBI secured a Section 215 order from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the search would have gone forward, and nobody – not even the patrons whose records had been examined – would have known that it had happened.”
“For years – and long before the USA PATRIOT Act passed – law enforcement agents have shown an unconsitutional interest in what people are reading. It was librarians who helped bring to an end the FBI’s infamous library awareness program during the Cold War and who led efforts to pass library confidentiality protections in 48 of 50 states. Joan Airoldi and her staff and board acted in this great, professional tradition in a fearful time and extremely charged atmosphere. We are honored to be able to salute her and the Whatcom County Library System.”
This is the thirteenth anniversary of the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award, which was established by actor Paul Newman and author A. E. Hotchner to honor a U.S. resident who has fought courageously, despite adversity, to safeguard the First Amendment right to freedom of expression as it applies to the written word. The judges for the 2005 award were Marjorie Heins, Coordinator of the Free Expression Policy Project at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law; acclaimed novelist Maureen Howard; author and Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy; Lewis Lapham, Editor, Harpers Magazine; and Paul McMasters, First Amendment Ombudsman at the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center.
Joan Airoldi in USA Today
It was a moment that librarians had been dreading.
On June 8, 2004, an FBI agent stopped at the Deming branch of the Whatcom County Library System in northwest Washington and requested a list of the people who had borrowed a biography of Osama bin Laden. We said no.
We did not take this step lightly. First, our attorney called the local FBI office and asked why the information was important. She was told that one of our patrons had sent the FBI the book after discovering these words written in the margin: “If the things I’m doing is considered a crime, then let history be a witness that I am a criminal. Hostility toward America is a religious duty and we hope to be rewarded by God.”
We told the FBI that it would have to follow legal channels before our board of trustees would address releasing the names of the borrowers. We also informed the FBI that, through a Google search, our attorney had discovered that the words in the margin were almost identical to a statement by bin Laden in a 1998 interview.
Undeterred, the FBI served a subpoena on the library a week later demanding a list of everyone who had borrowed the book since November 2001. More…
Joan Airoldi in the Seattle Times
The biggest battles, the ones that Really Count, always seem to start in the smallest places.
And so it was that the fight for the rights of library patrons to read what they wish, free of government scrutiny, started here, along a two-lane road just past the north fork of the Nooksack River and a stone’s throw from Everybody’s Store. Last June, an FBI agent found his way to the tiny Deming branch of the Whatcom County Rural Library District and demanded the names of every patron who had borrowed the book Bin Laden: The Man who Declared War on America.
The FBI had been contacted by a library patron who spotted a handwritten note in the margin of the book: “If the things I’m doing is considered a crime, then let history be a witness that I am criminal. Hostility toward America is a religious duty and we hope to be rewarded by God.”
It was a nearly direct quote of a statement Osama bin Laden made in a 1998 interview.
The agent first approached a library page shelving books in the nonfiction aisle. She directed him to the on-site librarian, who, in keeping with district policy, notified library director Joan Airoldi the FBI wanted to search patron records.
Airoldi refused. “And the attorneys,” she told me, “took it from there.”
Last night, Airoldi, 59, received the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award at a gala at the American Museum of Natural History in New York — a long way from the Nooksack River, but in a free America just the same. More…
Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660 ext. 105, [email protected]