Library confrontation points up privacy dilemma
By JOHN CURRAN,
Associated Press Writer
Children's librarian Judith Flint was getting ready for the monthly book discussion group for 8- and 9-year-olds on "Love That Dog" when police showed up.
They weren't kidding around: Five state police detectives wanted to seize Kimball Public Library's public access computers as they frantically searched for a 12-year-old girl, acting on a tip that she sometimes used the terminals.
Flint demanded a search warrant, touching off a confrontation that pitted the privacy rights of library patrons against the rights of police on official business.
"It's one of the most difficult situations a library can face," said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of intellectual freedom issues for the American Library Association.
Investigators did obtain a warrant about eight hours later, but the June 26 standoff in the 105-year-old, red brick library on Main Street frustrated police and had fellow librarians cheering Flint.
"What I observed when I came in were a bunch of very tall men encircling a very small woman," said the library's director, Amy Grasmick, who held fast to the need for a warrant after coming to the rescue of the 4-foot-10 Flint.
Library records and patron privacy have been hot topics since the passage of the U.S. Patriot Act after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Library advocates have accused the government of using the anti-terrorism law to find out — without proper judicial oversight or after-the-fact reviews — what people research in libraries.
But the investigation of Brooke Bennett's disappearance wasn't a Patriot Act case.
"We had to balance out the fact that we had information that we thought was true that Brooke Bennett used those computers to communicate on her MySpace account," said Col. James Baker, director of the Vermont State Police. "We had to balance that out with protecting the civil liberties of everybody else, and this was not an easy decision to make."
Brooke, from Braintree, vanished the day before the June 26 confrontation in the children's section of the tiny library. Investigators went to the library chasing a lead that she had used the computers there to arrange a rendezvous.
Brooke was found dead July 2. An uncle, convicted sex offender Michael Jacques, has since been charged with kidnapping her. Authorities say Jacques had gotten into her MySpace account and altered postings to make investigators believe she had run off with someone she met online.
Flint was firm in her confrontation with the police.
"The lead detective said to me that they need to take the public computers and I said `OK, show me your warrant and that will be that,'" said Flint, 56. "He did say he didn't need any paper. I said `You do.' He said `I'm just trying to save a 12-year-old girl,' and I told him `Show me the paper.'"
Cybersecurity expert Fred H. Cate, a law professor at Indiana University, said the librarians acted appropriately.
"If you've told all your patrons `We won't hand over your records unless we're ordered to by a court,' and then you turn them over voluntarily, you're liable for anything that goes wrong," he said.
A new Vermont law that requires libraries to demand court orders in such situations took effect July 1, but it wasn't in place that June day. The library's policy was to require one.
The librarians did agree to shut down the computers so no one could tamper with them, which had been a concern to police.
Once in police hands, how broadly could police dig into the computer hard drives without violating the privacy of other library patrons?
Baker wouldn't discuss what information was gleaned from the computers or what state police did with information about other people, except to say the scope of the warrant was restricted to the missing girl investigation.
"The idea that they took all the computers, it's like data mining," said Caldwell-Stone. "Now, all of a sudden, since you used that computer, your information is exposed to law enforcement and can be used in ways that (it) wasn't intended.'"
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