Privacy SOS

Librarians open up a world of knowledge and information to people of all ages. Now more than ever, it’s critical that these stewards of enlightenment know their rights and responsibilities with respect to government demands for patron information—whether in person or via electronic means. Here are some ways librarians might encounter law enforcement requests for information, and some general guidelines. Each situation is unique, however, so please contact your legal counsel and/or ACLUM for legal advice if law enforcement officials approach you.[1]

Know your rights; protect your patrons.


POLICE WALK IN AND ASK FOR PATRON INFORMATION, OR TO VIEW COMPUTER RECORDS:

You generally are under no obligation to make users’ records available absent a warrant or subpoena. Explain that users’ records are not available without a court order or subpoena. If the officers nevertheless insist on conducting the search, you should not physically interfere but should say clearly that you have not given your consent and that the search is against your wishes. Please contact the ACLU if police forcibly seize information.

 

THE LIBRARY RECEIVES A WARRANT SEEKING INFORMATION OR RECORDS:

A search warrant can be executed immediately. You may ask the officers to wait until library counsel has the opportunity to examine the search warrant. If the officers refuse, you can examine the warrant to ensure that it was issued by a local or federal court in Massachusetts, is signed by a judge or magistrate, and is current and not expired. The warrant will identify the specific items that must be produced; ask the officers to observe these limits and do not provide any additional information.

 

THE LIBRARY RECEIVES A SO-CALLED ‘NATIONAL SECURITY LETTER’ FROM THE FBI, SEEKING INFORMATION OR RECORDS:

In practice, an NSL operates like a search warrant, except that it contains a gag order. However, you may still disclose the information to (1) staff that are necessary to produce the records and (2) legal counsel. If you receive an NSL please contact the ACLU immediately.

 

THE LIBRARY RECEIVES A SUBPOENA SEEKING INFORMATION OR RECORDS:          

A subpoena does not require an immediate response. You should not turn over the documents immediately. Instead, refer the subpoena to library counsel, who can examine the document for any legal defects. Library counsel can also determine whether there are grounds (such as lack of good cause or overbreadth) to file a motion to quash the subpoena. If you ultimately comply with the subpoena, only provide the information that is specifically requested.

 

THE LIBRARY RECEIVES AN ADMINISTRATIVE SUBPOENA SEEKING INFORMATION OR RECORDS:

An administrative subpoena largely operates like a regular subpoena, except that it is issued from a district attorney’s office. Some district attorney’s offices have included non-judicial gag orders in their administrative subpoenas. However, you may still disclose the information to legal counsel. The ACLU is particularly concerned about administrative subpoenas. Please contact the ACLU if you receive an administrative subpoena from a local District Attorney’s office.

 

If you receive a government demand for patron information and you aren’t sure what to do, or think the request may violate your rights or the rights of your patron, please contact the ACLU of Massachusetts during business hours (Monday-Friday, 9-5PM) at 617-482-3170

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[1] This information is compiled in part from materials on the American Library Association’s website, which you can find at www.ala.org.

© 2017 ACLU of Massachusetts.