The blogosphere was humming over the weekend with a startling news story, “Agents’ Visit Chills UMass Dartmouth Senior,” published in the Standard-Times, a daily that serves Dartmouth, New Bedford, and other Southcoast Massachusetts towns. Professors told a reporter that one of their students had been visited by Homeland Security agents after requesting a copy of Mao’s “Little Red Book” through interlibrary loan.
The student, who was completing a research paper on Communism for Professor Pontbriand’s class on fascism and totalitarianism, filled out a form for the request, leaving his name, address, phone number and Social Security number. He was later visited at his parents’ home in New Bedford by two agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the professors said. . . The professors said the student was told by the agents that the book is on a “watch list,” and that his background, which included significant time abroad, triggered them to investigate the student further. . .
Dr. Williams said he had been planning to offer a course on terrorism next semester, but is reconsidering, because it might put his students at risk. “I shudder to think of all the students I’ve had monitoring al-Qaeda Web sites, what the government must think of that,” he said. “Mao Tse-Tung is completely harmless.”
This story roused my curiosity because if true, it’s appalling. If half-true, it’s appalling. The idea that even the threat of surveillance would cause a professor to reconsider what he teaches is chilling indeed. But there were some oddities that made me want to know more. It seemed strange, for instance, that a library would ask for a student’s social security number on an interlibrary loan form; I looked at the UMass Dartmouth library’s Web site and, sure enough, it doesn’t.
Today, the University issued a statement. Though they aren’t contesting the student’s claim, and they are protecting his identity at his request, they offer some reassurance that their library, at least, didn’t participate in violating the student’s rights. The student says he made the request through another library, unnamed. The rest of the UMass Dartmouth statement goes on:
The UMass Dartmouth library has established policies for handling requests under the Patriot Act and has taken every lawful measure possible to protect the confidentiality of patron records.
The Library subscribes to the American Library Association Library Bill of Rights and was a signatory to the MCCLPHEI (Massachusetts Conference of Chief Librarians of Public Higher Educational Institutions) resolution on the USA Patriots Act submitted to the Massachusetts Civil Liberty Union in 2003.
UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Jean F. MacCormack said, “It is important that our students and our faculty be unfettered in their pursuit of knowledge about other cultures and political systems if their education and research is to be meaningful. We must do everything possible to protect the principles of academic inquiry.”
I hope the rest of this story gets a thorough airing in time. Many bloggers commenting so far don’t seem aware of the fact that libraries don’t participate in surveillance willingly and short of a court order or National Security Letter would never report on a student’s reading habits.