March 16, 2018

Recalled Government Papers Prompt Librarian Protest, Then Reversal

Lynn Blumenstein & Norman Oder

FOIA request pushes Department of Justice to leave forfeiture information that was long in public domain

After a government documents recall notice posted on the Government Printing Office (GPO) web site generated strong reaction from librarians, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said in early August that federal depository libraries could keep the disputed materials on their shelves after all. The controversy began after the DOJ requested through the GPO's Superintendent of Documents that five documents distributed on civil and criminal asset forfeiture procedures were to be withdrawn and destroyed immediately, as they are intended for internal use only. The topics addressed in the documents include information on how citizens can retrieve items that may have been confiscated by the government during an investigation. The documents were Civil and Criminal Forfeiture Procedure, Select Criminal Forfeiture Forms, Select Federal Asset Forfeiture Statutes, Asset forfeiture and Money Laundering Resource Directory, and Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 (CAFRA). Two are texts of federal statutes.

Superintendent of Documents Judith Russell explained, "I personally spoke with the printing officer at DOJ and advised him about the definition in Title 44 that allows GPO to disseminate publications that are for internal use only if they have educational value or public interest. He advised me that these were training materials and other materials that the DOJ staff did not feel were appropriate for external use…. In this case, DOJ was satisfied with having the libraries remove the item and dispose of it. This is a routine process…. We are retaining several copies for the Collection of Last Resort and future public access if that is permissible in the future."

Librarians fight back

Librarians, however, launched a campaign to reverse the order and the American Library Association (ALA) submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, asking why DOJ requested that documents that have been available for as long as four years be removed. Boston Public Library (BPL) president Bernie Margolis, in a statement on the ALA Council electronic list, said he had asked that the decision be reconsidered and noted that he had copied the documents for cataloging as part of BPL's collection. "They are available for public use and will continue to be," he wrote.

After further inquiry, Russell rescinded the order, at DOJ's request, and ALA withdrew the FOIA request, as the issue was moot. Though DOJ officials said that the materials were inappropriately distributed to depository libraries through an error, Russell noted that the agency determined that these materials are "not sufficiently sensitive to require removal from the depository library system."

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