When the Newton TAB reported this week that a librarian had defied the FBI, the blogosphere promptly erupted into a liberal's wet dream. Since everyone has already made up their minds that this was a Constitutional victory against a totalitarian regime, I thought we could review the facts as a fun little exercise.
Around 11 a.m. last Wednesday morning, Brandeis University received a terrorist threat via email. Police and FBI were notified, and the threat was deemed credible. Authorities evacuated 12 buildings on the Brandeis campus and one nearby elementary school.
Within three hours, the FBI had traced the email to the Newton Free Library. Two agents, accompanied by two Newton police officers, drove to the library. They identified themselves and requested the librarians' assistance accessing the computers. Kathy Glick-Weil, the library's director, refused and demanded they produce a warrant. When the FBI agents explained the circumstances, Ms. Glick-Weil identified herself as a member of the ACLU and repeated her demand for a warrant.
Rather than escalate the situation, the agents tried a different tack. The FBI contacted the mayor, who met the agents at the library. After a discussion, Ms. Glick-Weil agreed to allow one of her employees to examine the computers. She confirmed that the FBI's information was accurate and she identified which of the room's 21 computers had sent the email. She refused to cooperate further, and the mayor agreed. A warrant arrived ten hours later, at which point the agents removed the computer from the building.
Those are the facts as reported by the Newton TAB and WTKK. In a follow-up article, the newspaper reported that Ms. Glick-Weil now disputes that FBI agents told her they needed the information to prevent a terrorist attack. You can decide for yourself whether that sounds credible, that four law enforcement officers would have abided this mess for ten hours without thinking to mention the reason for their visit.
(For anyone unfamiliar with Brandeis University, it's the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored college in the United States. Its motto is the Hebrew word for truth, and its students and faculty are overwhelmingly comprised of Jews. I don't mean to imply that Ms. Glick-Weil's motives were anti-Semitic, but the school's Jewish profile is certainly a factor when considering the credibility of threats made against it.)
The Fourth Amendment protects Americans against unreasonable searches and seizures. There have been entire books written on the subject; but for the sake of keeping this discussion simple, I'll simply explain that our law recognizes certain necessary exceptions to the warrant requirement, some of which involve phrases like "imminent danger" and "hot pursuit."
To the liberals who are condemning the FBI agents for requesting information without a warrant, I would submit that they could have simply handcuffed Ms. Glick-Weil and helped themselves to the computer. I might have. I can only assume they had other avenues of investigation and were trying to avoid making a bad situation worse in terms of public relations; and rather than condemn them, liberals might consider praising their restraint. The FBI is often accused of overzealousness; and in this case, it seems that two agents managed to keep their cool in the presence of a woman determined to thwart their authority.
According to WTKK, Ms. Glick-Weil gave a speech several years ago in which she condemned the Patriot Act for its legislation regarding privacy in libraries. This week, she cited privacy laws and defended her actions by saying, "I feel I did everything I needed to do to protect the privacy of the people I need to protect, and to obey the law." Indeed, privacy was clearly her main concern. The library's computer room is equipped with surveillance cameras which would identify whomever sent the email — but those cameras had been turned off.
The TAB quoted David Gray, spokesman for the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, who insisted that state law prohibits the release of any potentially identifying records without a warrant. Mayor David Cohen described this incident as one of Newton's "finest hours."
The paper also spoke with the ACLU.
Nancy Murray, director of education for the Boston branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she was surprised the FBI asked for information without a warrant.There you have it. Kathy Glick-Weil, David Gray, and ACLU director Nancy Murray honestly believe the law protects the privacy of criminals before the lives of innocents. Hundreds of bloggers agree. That's frightening. I'm glad they're wrong, and I'm thankful no one was hurt.
"They couldn’t possibly expect to get [the computer] without a warrant," she said. "Good for the library for knowing more about warrants than the police."