The government’s power of subpoena is a fearsome one indeed. Though checked by the Fourth Amendment, it can be abused by overzealous prosecutors and compliant judges willing to compromise individual liberty and privacy.
On three occasions last year the U.S. Department of Justice obtained court orders to examine reader account information at the Scottsdale Public Library.
But unlike the broader and more secret powers granted under the USA Patriot Act, in the Scottsdale case federal agents properly relied on more traditional legal authority as they sought information relating to an attack on a city official.
The Tribune’s Ryan Gabrielson reported Sunday that information included in federal grand-jury subpoenas to the city library system suggest a connection to the February 2004 mail-bomb attack on city diversity and dialogue director Don Logan.
While we do not know this for certain, nor do we know what specific library documents federal authorities obtained, we do know that the city of Scottsdale defied the feds’ admonition to not reveal even that they requested them. To their credit, Scottsdale officials ignored that and revealed to the Tribune, and thus to the public, the existence of the subpoenas without disclosing what was provided. This is at least a limited check on federal power.
Free-speech advocates — including many librarians quoted in Gabrielson’s story — decry at such actions, though they did agree that the Scottsdale library subpoenas were rare examples. As Michael Gorman, president of the American Library Association, told Gabrielson, “It seems to me a fairly fundamental American freedom to read what the hell you please without the government putting its fingers into it.”
The search for what might be useful documents in finding, arresting and prosecuting whoever was responsible for the attack on Logan is a reminder in these unsettled times. And that is that all citizens should remain watchful for any possible abuse of freedom by government, which could well feel emboldened to act beyond the scope of its constitutional authority on the premise of national security, however important that premise is.