Wednesday, December 21, 2005

More on Apparent Hoax: Homeland Security Agents Visited Student Who Ordered “Little Red Book”

The story of the University of Massachusetts student who was supposedly visited by agents of the Department of Homeland Security after he ordered a copy of Mao’s “Little Red Book” continues to come apart. From the Standard-Times:
UMass Dartmouth statement on “Little Red Book”

UMass Dartmouth spokesman John Hoey issued this statement:

“University of Massachusetts Dartmouth officials are investigating reports that a student at the university was visited by officials from Homeland Security after the student requested a copy of Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book.” UMass administrators have interviewed the student who has requested that his identity be shielded, and the University is complying with that request.

“At this point, it is difficult to ascertain how Homeland Security obtained the information about the student’s borrowing of the book. The UMass Dartmouth Library has not been visited by agents of any type seeking information about the borrowing patterns or habits of any of its patrons and did not handle the request for the book in question. The student has indicated that another university library processed the request.

“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.”
Note that the original article airing this supposed incident says the following:
Two history professors at UMass Dartmouth, Brian Glyn Williams and Robert Pontbriand, said the student told them he requested the book through the UMass Dartmouth library’s interlibrary loan program.
So now that it has been established that the student did not in fact order the book through his campus library, the story has changed.

Of course, since nobody in the media has talked to the student directly, but merely gotten the story as relayed through one of the professors (Williams), perhaps this is merely an error being corrected.

But there are other problems. The story was covered by Inside Higher Ed, and one of the people commenting on it there left the following information:
I am an academic librarian, and I am among those who smell a rat in this story. While it is true that the Quotations of Chairman Mao (the actual title of the book) is available in abridged versions, a quick search of Worldcat (a very nearly universal library catalog) revealed that there are hundreds of unabridged versions (published by the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing) available around the country. Over a dozen libraries in MA have it, and nearly 3 dozen in NY. Moreover, as another correspondent has indicated, the full text of the Quotations exists on the web at not one but many sites (http://art-bin.com/art/omaotoc.html, http://www.marxists.org/, and http://www.marx2mao.com/Mao/QCM66.html, to list a few). While I don’t doubt that the Federal Government monitors such things (and for the record, I oppose such monitoring), the description of what the Homeland Security agents did sounds very odd. Why would they bring a copy of the book with them? I think it far more likely that they’d quietly keep an eye on the student for a while, maybe flagging him for more extensive searching of his luggage during air travel, or something like that. In any case, I suspect that this story will eventually turn up on the Snopes urban legends site, with indications as to its veracity (Snopes includes true stories as well as hoaxes).

Whitestag, at 3:31 pm EST on December 20, 2005
Clearly, this story should not be repeated as fact. The burden is now on the student and his professor to produce more information. Failing that, this has to go in the “hoax” file.

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