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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC Library To Remove Document

Davis Library became one of 1,300 libraries nationwide ordered to destroy possibly sensitive public documents.

The library has been ordered by the federal government to destroy documents containing information on public water supplies it received as a member of the Federal Depository Library program.

Government officials have approached about 1,300 libraries across the country that might contain sensitive documents.

In a letter to Ridley Kessler, the federal depository librarian at UNC, the U.S. Government Printing Office called for the destruction of the CD-ROM document "Source-Area Characteristics of Large Public Surface Water Supplies in the Conterminous United States: An Information Resource for Source-Water Assessment."

Kessler received the letter Oct. 12 and said the document is no longer available at Davis Library.

Kessler said he thinks the government fears that terrorists could use information about water supplies in future attacks.

While Kessler said he understands the need for national security today, he said he is disturbed by the demand and that it is an act of censorship. Kessler said the destruction of public documents goes against the mission of both UNC and its libraries.

"This library -- and the University -- has prided itself on free public access of these documents to the people of North Carolina," he said.

Kessler said he fears destroying the document could lead to the destruction of less threatening or more important documents that should not be censored.

"When you have an event like (Sept. 11) it scares everyone to death," he said. "When you have a public that is scared, (censorship) sounds very good."

But Kessler said public access to federal documents has suffered for six to eight years prior to Sept. 11 because of a budget crisis. This has led conservatives in Congress to call for electronic publishing of federal documents, he said.

"I have spent my entire career fighting for free public access," Kessler said.

Kessler said the library has received requests to return or destroy documents in the past, but these generally were a result of the Government Printing Office accidentally sending the wrong documents to his office.

Chuck Stone, a UNC journalism professor who teaches a course in censorship, said questions regarding free speech become more difficult during times of war. "It is difficult to balance the equities between the right to know and the right to protect people," Stone said.

Stone also said that while he believes the government must continue to improve national security, the demand to destroy the water supply document could be declared unconstitutional in court.

Kessler said he expects the government to call for the destruction of more documents in the future, an idea he said he finds discouraging.

"Access to information published by the government is everybody's business," he said.

"No government is so good that it can be trusted to operate in the dark."

The University Editor can be reached at udesk@unc.edu.

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