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Librarians Win Battle Against Ashcroft’s Edict to Censor Statute Documents: By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday August 10, 2004

Following howls of protest from libraries across the nation, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has rescinded a controversial order demanding that libraries destroy copies of a federal statute and accompanying regulations and documents. 

The mandate in question was sent to libraries designated by Washington as official depositories, where federal statutes, regulations and other documents are routinely shipped in order to make them available to the general public. 

“You don’t want to mess with the public documents librarians. They are the pit bulls of democracy,” said Patricia Ianuzzi, director of the Moffitt and Doe Libraries at UC Berkeley—the latter a designated federal depository. 

Ianuzzi said she had never heard of the feds trying to recall copies of legislation enacted by Congress, as Ashcroft attempted to do with the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, which had been shipped off to depositories four years ago. 

“I can only assume that the person who issued the order didn’t know what they were doing,” she said. 

The other documents on the recall list, sent to librarians on July 20 by federal Superintendent of Documents Judith C. Russell, included Civil and Criminal Forfeiture Procedure, Select Criminal Forfeiture Forms, Select Federal Asset Forfeiture Statutes, and Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Resource Directory. 

The reason for Russell’s action? “The Department of Justice has determined that these materials are for internal use only,” she wrote. 

Under federal law, Russell is obliged to withdraw publications when requested by the agencies which had initially issued them, according to an article posted on, the website of Librarian & Information Science News. 

Michael Gorman, president-elect of the American Library Association (ALA), blasted the Justice Department move. 

“The topics addressed in the named documents include information on how citizens can retrieve items that may have been confiscated by the government during an investigation,” he wrote in an official statement issued on July 30. 

On learning of the mandatory withdrawal, the ALA filed a Freedom on Information Act request for the documents to force Ashcroft’s agency into issuing a statement on the “unusual action.” 

David Dodd, an executive with the San Francisco Public Library and chair of the California Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, said “the major effect on libraries by Mr. Ashcroft has been a raised awareness of potential threats to personal privacy, primarily via the portions of the PATRIOT Act (section 215 in particular) that give broad and unprecedented powers to the federal government. 

“Many librarians are increasingly conscious of our roles as guardians of our users’ privacy as an aspect of intellectual freedom—that is, the freedom to think and learn without fear of reprisal. This freedom is essential to the existence of a functioning, healthy democracy. And that’s what libraries are all about.” 

Dodd said the initial destruction order was sent via e-mail, and “several depository were holding off on compliance with the order to destroy the docs while they waited for the (official) paper notification.” 

The ALA’s Michael Gorman noted in his July 30 statement that written notification had not yet been issued. The written order never came before the Justice Department capitulated. 

Ianuzzi said previous orders to withdraw federal documents generally applied “to misinformation and in particular to misinformation that could lead to safety issues. Several years ago they recalled a geological CD-ROM because they feared the mapping system it used could be employed by terrorists for targeting attacks.”  

Dodd praised Bernie Margolis at the Boston Public Library as “foremost among those speaking out and questioning the order.” 

Ianuzzi said that the public doesn’t grasp the importance of free access to information, “and Republicans keep wanting to pull away from it.” 

While the Berkeley Public Library isn’t an official depository, Director of Library Services Jackie Griffin, a member of Dodd’s Intellectual Freedom committee, hailed the victory. 

“Once more, the librarian was mightier than the Ashcroft,” she quipped. “The American Library Association was all over it, and they capitulated.” 

Griffin said “Librarians have been more politically active under John Ashcroft. In a way, you have to thank the man.”