Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Judith Flint: Heroine or Jerk?

The following is word for word from "Best of the Web Today - July 22, 2008" by James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal:

Judith Flint: Heroine or Jerk?
It's a classic case of the little guy--or, in this case, gal--standing up to authority, at least the way the Associated Press describes it in a dispatch from Randolph, Vt.:

Children's librarian Judith Flint was getting ready for the monthly book discussion group for 8- and 9-year-olds on "Love That Dog" when police showed up.
They weren't kidding around: Five state police detectives wanted to seize Kimball Public Library's public access computers as they frantically searched for a 12-year-old girl, acting on a tip that she sometimes used the terminals.
Flint demanded a search warrant, touching off a confrontation that pitted the privacy rights of library patrons against the rights of police on official business. . . .
Investigators did obtain a warrant about eight hours later, but the June 26 standoff in the 105-year-old, red brick library on Main Street frustrated police and had fellow librarians cheering Flint.
"What I observed when I came in were a bunch of very tall men encircling a very small woman," said the library's director, Amy Grasmick, who held fast to the need for a warrant after coming to the rescue of the 4-foot-10 Flint. . . .

The missing girl, Brooke Bennett, turned up dead a week later. Her uncle Michael Jacques, a convicted sex offender, has been charged with kidnapping her. "Authorities say Jacques had gotten into her MySpace account and altered postings to make investigators believe she had run off with someone she met online," the AP reports.

The cops were in the library that day "chasing a lead that she had used the computers there to arrange a rendezvous":

"The lead detective said to me that they need to take the public computers and I said 'OK, show me your warrant and that will be that,'" said Flint, 56. "He did say he didn't need any paper. I said 'You do.' He said 'I'm just trying to save a 12-year-old girl,' and I told him 'Show me the paper.' "

A Vermont law that requires librarians to demand court orders in such cases had not yet gone into effect, so Flint was acting on her own discretion in demanding a warrant. The cops yielded and obtained a warrant eight hours later.

Grasmick, and by extension the AP, depicts the police as bullies picking on "a very small women." To our mind her smallness is not just a matter of physical stature. Presented with an opportunity to help a little girl in danger, she officiously responded: "Show me the paper."

Far from bullying her, the cops--although they were bigger and more numerous than she--deferred to her, slowing the investigation by crucial hours in order to comply with her demand. You can describe their treatment of her as impressively chivalrous or as excessively obeisant. In either case, it was far from domineering.

Flint, of course, would claim that she was standing up for a principle--for, in the AP's words, "the privacy rights of library patrons." Have you noticed, though, how the people who assert this principle are never patrons but always librarians? We'd say this is really a case of status envy. Librarians want their "profession" to be treated with the same respect society affords the practice of medicine or law. (We should note that people in our own line of work are vulnerable to the same criticism, as evidenced by this item on proposed shield laws.)

Here is a case in which police searching for a missing girl were forced to waste precious time because a bureaucrat, acting on her own authority, said "Show me the paper" instead of "How can I help?" Judith Flint is no heroine.


  1. I find it very interesting that the liberals will take away every liberty we have to make us more safe with out justification..

    and they the will force a "liberty" at the cost of human life.

    In both cases the motivation appears to be to make evil triumph..

  2. Interestingly, the library director has blogged on this issue. See "When Law Enforcement Comes a’Knocking," by Amy C. Grasmick, Director, Kimball Public Library, Randolph, VT, 22 July 2008, and my comment (#1), which comment I am reprinting here:


    What an awfully sad story. But let me ask this. Is it not reasonable to amend the privacy statute to obtain the records without a court order in emergency circumstances? Life or death of a child would qualify as an emergency to me, and the time taken to get a court order may lead to death. A bahm about to go off would be another emergency case.

    Laws are supposed to be written in a manner that uses the least restrictive policy to achieve the ends. But having no exception for exigent circumstances means the law is not the least restrictive. Shouldn't the law be repealed or amended on this basis?

    Now the police and the librarians both work for the same boss, the taxpayer. In my office, when another employee wants access to records, I provide them, and both of us have an obligation to keep the corporate property protected from disclosure. Since police and librarians are employees of the citizens, I fail to understand the need for a court order, barring the VLA telling people one is needed and getting a law passed. They are both employees of the same boss- -they should be able to pass information freely for legitimate governmental reasons. Life or death situations for children is such a reason. What Eliot Spitzer did as Governor of New York that brought his downfall is not such a reason.

    If the police violate the public trust, say by misusing the information they receive, isn't the best remedy some kind of punishment for the police instead of a blanket preclusion of access to information that may solve a crime or save lives? You already do this yourselves. You claim you do not want a blanket Internet filter placed on library computers since Internet Use Policies suffice. And if someone violates the policy, that person is punished accordingly. I fail to see why libraries have what appears to be an obvious double standard on this issue. Governor Spitzer was not given a blanket requirement to get a court order before using the services of the police force, and when it was uncovered he illegally investigated political opponents on the public's dime, he lost his job. Isn't that a more reasonable, less restrictive approach than the one S220, now law, provides?

    And if people go to a "public" library, is it not reasonable to believe there is little expectation of privacy regarding investigations of possible criminal activity? Don't the people want the police to try to save the child or find the bahm and expect that records, while normally private, might be rifled through in an attempt to further the interests of justice?

    Yes, I opposed the VLA for wielding its ALA connections to make it appear as if Vermonters wanted S220, and for acting in a manner that precluded significant public input particularly when it counted during legislative activity, but this is a whole different issue and the issues I raise are valid and significant even if I live in New Jersey. Sorry, I had to say this, but I am trying to anticipate any ad hominem response (not from you) and instead get an honest answer (I know from you but from others too) useful for Vermonters and people generally.

    The issues I raise are legitimate. In summary, they are:

    1) Should the privacy statute be amended to allow for exigent circumstances?

    2) Should the privacy statute be repealed for failure to use the least restrictive language?

    3) Should the library statute not apply where parties involved both work for the same employer, namely, the taxpayers, and where they already have a duty not to disclose or wrongly use the information?

    4) Is there not a double standard where the library precludes Internet filters in favor of Acceptable Use Policies and punishing the individual policy breakers, yet the library uses a blanket law to preclude police from getting information, never giving them a chance to behave in the interests of the public trust (like the Acceptable Use Policy) and to be individually reprimanded for wrong doing regarding the information received (like someone who broke the policy)?

    5) Isn't the privacy statute overbroad where people might fully expect "public" library records may be reviewed for emergent matters of life, death, and justice? Indeed they may actually want the police to catch the criminal, and they may view the library privacy law as an impediment to justice. Such a law would not be just, by definition. After all, these are not medical records or tax records. (By the way, when a 9/11 terrorist's presence was remembered by a Florida librarian, she called the police despite the library privacy laws. The de facto leader of the ALA, Judith Krug, told the New York Times she would have preferred the librarian had followed the privacy law and not reported the terrorist- -so my concerns regarding the Vermont privacy law are not unfounded.)

    Now Amy C. Grasmick, Director of the Kimball Public Library, you are at the center of the storm right now. Your answers to these questions will be very interesting to a number of people I am sure. I certainly hope you respond substantively.

    Thank you very much.

  3. I found this site called maybe you can use it. It seems to help get me through the issues of dealing with some of the jerks I know. At least I can vent about these jerks, plus I get a kick out of sending them some cards.

  4. Lina,
    I'm not sure if you are serious or joking, but no one involved in this matter is a jerk. They are all trying to comply with existing law or existing policy, or are asking questions about same, so far as I can tell. Also, this matter involves a death. Please be respectful.

  5. "What an awfully sad story. But let me ask this. Is it not reasonable to amend the privacy statute to obtain the records without a court order in emergency circumstances?"

    Who decides when it is an emergency? What if it later turns out that it was not an emergency and the missing person was perfectly safe? I have an idea, let's designate certain officials to judge if it is an emergency and if a search is justified (We could call these people 'Judges'). They could issue some kind of document saying that the situation justifies a search...we could call it a warrant!

    The point of issuing warrants is so that not just anyone can decide a situation justifies a search. The minute you start blurring the line by letting any old person decide what is an emergency, it becomes harder and harder to see when someone is stepping over that line.

    Well done, Judith Flint!

    We have a system that has worked for over 200 years. It has protected the population from government abuse. It is one of the reasons that The United States has become such a stable nation. Let's not give up on this system now.

  6. I applaud the actions of this woman. By the way, a new Vermont law that requires libraries to demand court orders in such situations took effect July 1, it simply wasn't yet in place that June day.

    This policeman could have returned quickly with said warrant ... if he hadn't become so miffed, and returned with others to intimidate her. Thankfully, this 4-10" woman proved to be stronger than the intimidation they tried.

  7. Ed Tracey,

    I agree where warrants are warranted, they should be obtained, except in exigent circumstances. But I'll assume such circumstances are considered when the appropriate laws or policies are drafted.

    While I am writing, notice that my comment on the Vermont Library Association [VLA] blog that I republished in the second comment above has been completely removed by the VLA. The intellectual freedom and equal access people wiped out my comment. Look, they were perfectly legitimate questions respectfully raised. Does that tell you or Vermont citizens anything about the VLA's claimed adherence to principles of intellectual freedom and the like when the VLA seeks to separate children as young as 13 from their parents?


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