In my first post on the 2015 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Council III, I focused on what we easily came to agreement on. In this post I’ll talk about a proposed mass surveillance resolution, one of two issues that generated a lot of debate and close votes.
At Council I, we were brought CD#42, Resolution Against Mass Surveillance of the American People. It was a strongly worded resolution that while acknowledging some recent modest reforms called on the US Federal Government to repeal several specific pieces of surveillance legislation. The actions requested mirrored what traditional ALA allies ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation had requested of Congress earlier in June.
After some discussion trying to ascertain whether ALA’s Committee on Legislation (COL) had this resolution as a formal referral, Council formally referred CD#42 to a joint COL/Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC). They promised a response by Council III, if not by Council Forum II.
At Council Forum II, the acting chairs brought a substitute resolution for discussion. The substitute resolution was now titled “RESOLUTION ON THE PASSAGE OF THE USA FREEDOM ACT AND REAFFIRMING ALA’s COMMITMENT TO SURVEILLANCE LAW REFORM” The full text of the substitute resolution can be found on page 6 of CD#20.2-20.3 ALA Committee on Legislation Report to Council 2015 Annual Meeting that they submitted for Council III.
I was appalled and I don’t think I was alone. The only thing that remained of the original resolution was the acknowledgement of the passage USA FREEDOM Act. The original resolution had been a call to action and documented how far we still had to go. The “substitute” spent most of its time praising the courage of Congress members for passing the USA Freedom Act. In other words, the resolution went from a petition for specific actions to an “atta-boy” for Congress. Orally we were told that we working with a number of partners and had to step carefully together. Those partners were not named.
I and at least three others told the acting chairs we could not accept the resolution in its current form. Much discussion ensued but I got the impression that COL had made its last, best offer on the subject.
Council III was the next morning. We received COL’s report mentioned above, which also contained information about activities they had conducted since Midwinter 2015. There was no written explanation in the report for why the resolution had changed, just a recommendation to accept the substitute. The acting chairs of COL and IFC highlighted how much work their committees had put into the substitute, implying that should be good enough for us.
Had they simply listed their reasons for opposing CD#42 and recommended a no vote, OR if they had followed expectations and brought back a resolution that honored the intent of what they were sent but softened its edges and kept its specificity, I might have accepted their report. But getting something back that reversed the intent of what they had been sent? With no substantial explanation?
My hope was for a quick debate leading to a vote on the substitute, which I hoped would be defeated. Then we could turn to the original resolution and give it a few tweaks, like including stronger thanks for the passage of the USA FREEDOM Act.
But that was not to be. Instead, we wound up amending the COL resolution to append all of the resolved clauses of CD#42 (the original resolution). This led to more confusion, lots of additional discussion and finally to a motion to refer the hybrid resolution back to COL.
I really thought that this was pointless as did a number of other Councilors. After all, COL had the text of both resolutions already and had decided on the language they preferred which was unacceptable to a Council majority. In the end, the Council voted to refer but by a margin narrow enough to force another stand up count. So we ought to get the resolution back by Midwinter 2016.
I recognize the need for an overall Committee on Legislation within ALA. We are a huge organization and we do a lot of lobbying on the federal level. COL and the Washington Office monitor the mood of Congress as well as the different policy pieces of ALA. I get that resolutions needed to be reviewed, vetted and sometimes changed to ensure accurate information is being cited and that we’re not pissing off Members of Congress for no good reason.
I also believe that COL comes off as high-handed and imperial, arrogating to itself the role of the one voice of ALA on legislative issues. I and some other ALA members believe that COL can sometimes give the impression that it’s defending Members of Congress from the riff-raff of ALA members and lefty-Councilors rather than assisting Council in the policy Council wishes to set.
Finally, I believe that COL members don’t wish to be seen this way. If they’d like COL to be seen as a partner rather than ruler of the legislative realm, here are I few things I think they ought to do. I hope that other Councilors and members will chime in with whether these are good ideas and add ideas of their own.
Recommendations for COL:
1) Work with the appropriate ALA units to implement a “pre-referral” process for resolutions. Council I is clearly too late to give COL enough time for a complex resolution. We knew that a resolution on mass surveillance was coming for weeks. There ought to be a process for submitting legislative-themed resolutions to COL prior to each conference. Perhaps a two week cutoff?
2) Offer written explanations of why you oppose certain resolutions. If COL feels that a resolution submitted to them is fatally flawed and must be completely reworked, we in Council deserve a detailed explanation of why this is the case, especially if you’ve located factual errors in the resolution or believe it is impossible to carry out. If you refer to the work of partners, tell us which ones and what they’re doing – as long as these are public partners and actions.
3) Consider issuing a “Recommend a no vote” instead of an unrecognizable “substitute” that has no resemblance to what you were sent. I acknowledge you did put a lot of work into the substitute CD#42. But it was wasted work because you reversed the intent of the original resolution. You could have saved yourselves time and trouble if you had simply said – “COL opposes passage of CD#42 on the following grounds …..” and trusted Council to make an informed decision.
ALA Committee on Legislation – http://www.ala.org/groups/committees/ala/ala-lg
What’s Next for Surveillance Reform After the USA Freedom Act, By Neema Singh Guliani, ACLU Legislative Counsel, JUNE 3, 2015 | 6:15 PM, https://www.aclu.org/blog/washington-markup/whats-next-surveillance-reform-after-usa-freedom-act
USA Freedom Act Passes: What We Celebrate, What We Mourn, and Where We Go From Here, JUNE 2, 2015 | BY CINDY COHN AND RAINEY REITMAN, https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2015/05/usa-freedom-act-passes-what-we-celebrate-what-we-mourn-and-where-we-go-here