The Independent Congressman from Vermont leads a growing coalition against the USA PATRIOT Act
by Norman Oder — Library Journal, 09/15/2003
The USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act was passed a month after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks with little debate and less scrutiny. Few in Congress wanted to be seen as hampering the fight against the bad guys.
Vermont’s at-large representative, Bernie Sanders, the only Independent in the House, voted against the Patriot Act, among 66 representatives and one senator who bucked the tide. More importantly, Sanders was the first to propose publicly amending the act. His leadership on this issue has earned him Library Journal‘s 2003 Politician of the Year award.
In March, Sanders introduced HR 1157, the Freedom To Read Protection Act, which would revise Section 215 of the Patriot Act, returning the government’s capacity to search the records of libraries and bookstores to pre–Patriot Act standards. Given that the Patriot Act allows records to be searched without a warrant, a criminal subpoena, or probable cause that a crime has been committed, an amendment would make it far less likely library records would be searched wholesale.
When the bill was introduced, library advocates were glad Sanders had taken on their cause but wondered whether it could garner support. Now, as citizens have grown more skeptical of government overreaching, Sanders has assembled a critical mass in the House, with some 129 cosponsors (of 435 members), including several conservative Republicans.
The momentum has grown. Dozens of newspapers have editorialized in favor of Sanders’s bill, as have governmental bodies, including the legislatures of three states (Vermont, Alaska, Hawaii) and numerous municipalities. Moreover, other legislators have since introduced similar bills and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has challenged Section 215 in court (see News , LJ 9/1/03, p. 16).
“[Sanders] took this matter seriously right away and responded promptly,” says Karen Lane, president of the Vermont Library Association (VLA), among those who nominated Sanders for Politician of the Year. “We have only one Congressman, but what a patriot.”
Speaking to LJ by phone, Sanders says of his bill, “We have done much better in terms of public support than I thought we would. Librarians have played a fantastic role. They’re basically trusted, and they’re all over the country. Having librarians and booksellers as allies has been a very, very positive factor.”
Speaking at both BookExpo America and the American Library Association (ALA) annual conference this year in Toronto, Sanders expressed earnestness and fervor. “In my view, this very broad language [in the Patriot Act] allows the FBI to justify virtually any search,” he declared in Toronto. “We don’t want to see a slow but chilling impact on intellectual curiosity.”
While Sanders has generally been supportive of library issues, he focuses more on civil liberties and supporting democracy. On the Patriot Act, even he needed some consciousness-raising. Vermont-based writer Judith Levine, author of the controversial Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children f rom Sex (LJ 6/1/02), was worried about the Patriot Act, including its effect on libraries. She contacted the ACLU of Vermont. Ultimately, University of Vermont librarian Trina Magi, immediate past president of the VLA, was enlisted.
The VLA board “decided to draft a letter expressing concerns from the library perspective,” Magi recounts. The board sent an open letter to Vermont’s congressional delegation and began gathering signatures. Concurrently, booksellers began a similar effort. “The letter went out in November, and Bernie Sanders responded with an eagerness to do something.”
Sanders recalls, “I knew…it wasn’t a good piece of legislation. But the people who really educated me were the librarians of Vermont. I received an extraordinarily well-written letter that articulated librarians’ concerns and informed me of a number of aspects, especially Section 215, which I had not been familiar with.”
As an activist since the 1960s, Sanders was especially receptive to the alarm. “The FBI has a history of abusing its power: monitoring, keeping records on and infiltrating civil rights organizations, Vietnam War protest groups, and others…,” he wrote earlier this year in an essay on the Patriot Act. “Little has changed to prevent the FBI from abusing its powers again if it is left unchecked.”
While Sanders often votes with Democrats and was a founder of the Progressive Caucus in the House, he is actually in a category of one, as an independent and socialist (of the Swedish variety). He grew up working class in Brooklyn, the son of a paint salesman and a homemaker. After attending Brooklyn College and the University of Chicago, he moved to Vermont in 1968; still, he retains an earthy Brooklyn accent.
While Vermont has long been known for flinty independence, Sanders and his generation further transformed the state, not just culturally—think Ben & Jerry, of ice cream fame—but also politically. In the 1970s, he ran at different times for governor and senator under the left-wing Liberty Union party, garnering barely six percent of the vote. In 1981, however, he beat the incumbent mayor of Burlington, a Democrat, by ten votes, a result of shoe-leather campaigning.
He began several terms as mayor of the state’s largest city, home to the University of Vermont. As someone who grew up without a lot of money to buy books, the library was always important in the Sanders household. “We were very supportive of the library in Burlington,” he says.
In 1990, Sanders was elected as Vermont’s sole member in the House, and he’s been easily reelected since then. While he has strongly considered a race for governor, in 2001 he announced he’d rather stay in Washington to help influence the administration’s policies on terrorism and other issues.
Of course, Sanders’s definition of patriotism may not be the same as that of either Attorney General John Ashcroft or his supporters. “We’re hearing different arguments,” Sanders tells LJ . “Some people say, ‘Look, we live in a dangerous time, we have to fight terrorism, and we have to give up some of our freedoms.’ And they say, ‘We trust the FBI to do the right thing, not to go beyond a legitimate fight against terrorism.’ ”
“We’re taking on the Bush administration. They are the majority party,” he continues. “You will always have a significant number of people who support the administration. And you have the [Department of Justice] fighting very hard to make the Patriot Act what it is. But the surprise is we have many conservative Republicans who say they are very concerned.”
In July, the anti–Patriot Act forces began to gain momentum. Not only were similar bills introduced, but Sanders was able to attach the language of his bill to a State Department funding act—and hoped it could be expanded as the legislation proceeded.
“The fact that we have 129 cosponsors, including 14 Republicans, suggests we’ll get the vast majority of Democrats and a significant number of Republicans.” The diversity of support, Sanders says, is nonideological: “All of that is grass-roots stuff.” Still, should the issue come to a vote, the battle likely will be fierce, predict ALA officials. Indeed, in late August, Ashcroft began a speaking tour to defend the Patriot Act.
“I think librarians all over this country are unsung heroes and heroines who are doing a tremendous job, against very difficult odds, because of the nature of the culture in which we live,” Sanders says. “We are moving more and more to an entertainment culture, a sound bite culture, but librarians have maintained, saying, ‘It’s important for the American people to get all kinds of information.’ ”
“I’ve been impressed by the willingness of librarians to go above and beyond the letter of their jobs,” he adds. “You’d expect them to fight for good budgets and jobs, but the librarians did not have to get on board this issue and say that, as librarians, we believe that all Americans should not have the government looking over their shoulder.”
Sanders believes hearts and minds can be changed, but as he once told the Progressive, it requires real dialog with citizens.
As for a dialog with Congress, he encourages library advocates to call their representatives. “Say, ‘We’d like to sit down and talk about our concerns about the USA Patriot Act,’ ” he advises. “You may or may not have the opportunity to meet with the member, but you certainly will have the opportunity to meet with staff. Maybe bring a petition. Say, ‘We’re observing carefully what goes on. We want you to cosponsor the Freedom To Read Act, and we’re watching.’ Let the member know his or her vote is being monitored, and there’s a price to be paid.”
|Norman Oder is Senior News Editor, LJ|