Update

The library story I wrote about yesterday has an update, in the form of a letter written to the Wall Street Journal in response to their story about the situation.  The WSJ was not looking favorably on the library’s actions, and rather took the librarian to task.  The director wrote a response:

The staff of Kimball Library did not impede the Vermont State Police’s investigation into the tragic disappearance of Brooke Bennett on June 25. VSP Detective Sergeant Richard Holden arrived at the library at about 4:30 p.m. on June 26. When staff informed him that the library required a valid court order to surrender the public Internet computers, he agreed. He stated that he would get the paperwork in order, get judicial approval, and return with a court order in hand.

Instead, for reasons unknown to us, Holden returned with four additional law-enforcement officials and proceeded for the next hour to try to intimidate Ms Flint into surrendering the computers without a court order. When Holden finally served the search warrant at 11:00 p.m., 6½ hours had passed. There was no celebration or sense of victory among the staff for “forcing” the police to get a search warrant, but rather considerable confusion. Why, when a judge can sign a court order within minutes given probable cause, did it take so long for the police to get one?

Library staff could not say for certain if Brooke had ever used the library’s computers, much less when or how. The state police confiscated five hard drives with the remnants of years’ worth of traffic by hundreds of users, all of whom were logged into the computers under a single user-name. If there are any data pertaining to Brooke or her MySpace account on any of those hard drives, it is the proverbial needle in a haystack. Meanwhile, Holden stated that the police were working to serve a court order on MySpace to gain access to Brooke’s account, and therefore a direct record of the activities pertaining to that account.

Library staff consulted with two lawyers about the correct course of action: Should they immediately surrender the computers, or stand by the library’s policy requiring a court order? Both lawyers confirmed that staff was correct to wait for a court order. Kimball Library’s policy puts judgment in such matters where it belongs, with a judge, who can make a rapid and impartial decision about constitutional matters that protect all of us: due process, probable cause, and privacy.

On July 1, legislation went into effect in Vermont to clarify and codify the circumstances under which any library in the state is permitted to release patron information. Sec. 1. 22 V.S.A. chapter 4 parallels state legislation across the country, and was enacted with the knowledge and support of the Vermont State Police. The actions of the staff of Kimball Library were fully in line with the statute. It is not–or should not be–a case of libraries versus law enforcement. Rather, librarians and law enforcement officials must do their jobs–for everyone’s protection.

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