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July 27, 2005

Thongs, public transit and civil liberty

I recently filled in a "customer feedback" form for the Toronto Public Library to thank them for installing bicycle hitching posts outside their Lillian H. Smith Branch (home of the Merril sf collection). My praise was not without reservation, however, as I pointed out that as a Toronto resident I am a patron, not a customer, of the public library.

This is a distinction I take seriously. If I want to be a customer I will go to a private business. As a library patron of a public service I have different rights and obligations than I do as a customer of a private concern, a distinction that applies not only to myself but to library staff, the character of the library's collection, its hours of operation and so forth. As a patron I am not buying a service but making use of a service to which I am entitled as a citizen, a tax-payer and a city resident.

All of these issues in mind, it is worth pointing out a somewhat perfunctory ritual I go through every time I leave the Metropolitan Reference Library branch. The Reference library is, as the name suggests, not a lending library but made up of archives, periodicals and other research materials. As such, patrons do not remove materials from the branch and, to provide some certainty light-fingered patrons should forego temptation, security guards check bags on the way out the door.

Is this a dramatic inconvenience? No. More important, is this a violation of my civil liberties? Hardly. The right of the people of Toronto to protect our archive collection from theft supercedes my right to have access to that collection without the marginal limitation of consenting to a bag check. So what precisely would be the difference between a search conducted to protect a library collection and a search to protect myself and my fellow passengers in the public transit system? I understand many people, including myself, will not be entirely comfortable with peace officers rummaging through our backpacks and there is an undeniable, if slight, loss of privacy in undergoing such rummaging. But then I think it is a stretch to suggest there is a constitutional right to using public transit under any circumstance. The TTC would not let me ride the subway clad only in a sequin, maple leaf thong or brandishing a Frank Frazetta battle axe (or both... there's your unwanted visual for the day) so I am not certain by what right I should be able to carry whatever I want in my baggage unchallenged.

Privacy is a right. But so is a reasonable expectation the TTC is exercising due care to reduce the odds I will be blown to bits by religious maniacs. The preponderance would seem to lie with protecting the latter at a slight detriment to the former. Casual observation of the subway platforms at Yonge and Bloor, or the Go Train terminal at Union Station, during any evening rush-hour suggest the horrendous casualties that could be inflicted by suicide bombers. Or for that matter by bombers less convinced of their heavenly reward. There is no need for them to engage in a "self-sacrifice operation" when they can still exploit the majority of commuters who have yet to take seriously the risk of unattended packages. I am now convinced this country will only learn its peril when the atrocity is upon us.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at July 27, 2005 08:23 AM

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