This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Information Today.
A patron wants to look up something she “heard somewhere”—say, that the 15th Amendment is due to expire soon. Another patron wants to know how to copyright his name. Still another patron shows you a typewritten card, laminated and with her picture on it, which looks like a driver’s license but was issued by the “Republic of the United States” and not an individual state. The patron is exasperated, saying that the circulation staffers wouldn’t give her a library card because, when she was asked for a “valid government-issued ID,” she showed them this. Tentatively, for you realize that this person is in a different league from someone who wants a photograph of Jesus, you ask her why she doesn’t just show her real ID. The woman sighs, and so do you, in relief—she could have started yelling, right? Her ID is real, she explains, because she is a free person, not owned by a foreign corporation, which the U.S. is. She is therefore not subject to the corporation’s laws.
Librarians have faced extreme patrons as long as there have been libraries. Most are just misguided, stubborn, or naive, and they can be funny. The blog, A Librarian’s Guide to Etiquette, has a page devoted to patrons’ foibles (see libetiquette.blogspot.com). When an extreme patron comes along with legal questions, however, things change. [See Brandi Scardilli’s “Avoiding the Unauthorized Practice of Law” in October 2014’s Information Today. —Ed.] Legal questions often involve money, freedom, or life itself, which ups the stakes for patrons, and the law can be a Gordian knot, confusing even to the well-intentioned. The patron with the homemade ID card could simply need a refresher in civics. More likely, she is part of what the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a “strange subculture” whose members “believe that they—not judges, juries, law enforcement or elected officials—get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore” and who may, when confronted, “lash out in rage, frustration and, in the most extreme cases, acts of deadly violence, usually directed against government officials.” In other words, the patron is probably a sovereign citizen.
The sovereign citizen concept has been around a while—it is rooted in Christian white supremacy and the Posse Comitatus movement of the 1970s—but has gotten increased attention from law enforcement in recent years. The movement is not a unified one, but most adherents share similar convictions. Based on corrupt readings of the 14th Amendment and certain events in U.S. history, their primary belief is that the U.S. is not a legitimate nation but a bankrupt foreign corporation whose laws do not affect them. Why? They see laws as contracts, and a contract without the consent of both parties is, of course, void. Reject the contract, they argue, and people become “freemen on the land.” The book Title 4 Flag Says You’re Schwag!: The Sovereign Citizen’s Handbook elaborates:
You came down the chute [i.e., were born], most likely, in a port of entry into this country, a hospital, and were confronted with customs agents, nurses and doctors, before you met your mother. They took full advantage of your mother’s vulnerability from the birthing process and convinced her emotional mind that she had to enter into very specifically designed contracts to be in compliance with “the law.” … If you did a home birth and your midwife didn’t crack under false sense of conscience you might have a truly sovereign American child in your life. This is a very special blessing because these children do not have to bear the burden of the National debt. They are not like all the rest. They can be brought up in knowledge of what it really means to be free.
This may sound lofty, even patriotic, but the real motive is financial: Sovereigns don’t want to pay any type of debt. Sovereign websites are plastered with moans about liens, taxes, and other “fraudulent” bills that the government racks up in a person’s name. One strain of the movement, called “commercial redemption,” provides instructions (for a fee, naturally) on canceling these obligations. As a result, sovereigns often end up in court for tax evasion, home foreclosure, or refusing to get a driver’s license. Once in court, they become “paper terrorists,” filing document after document of legal-sounding mumbo jumbo. “These are people who are very fond of paperwork,” says Michelle Nijm, assistant general counsel in the office of the Illinois secretary of state, in an ABA Journal article by Lorelei Laird. The article notes the case of Donna Lee Wray, a Pinellas County, Fla., woman who was told she had to get a license for her dog. J.J. MacNab, an expert on sovereigns, says the county “tried to fine her $25, and she hammered the court with paperwork … something like 65 filings.”
These tactics waste time and money, both of which governments have in short supply. However, another strain of sovereign citizenship overlaps with militants, survivalists, and doomsday preppers. This is the strain that worries police because it extends sovereigns’ contempt for rules and their nothing-to-lose attitude from lawmakers to law enforcers. The strain is rare—most sovereigns are not violent, according to Laird—but it does exist. Jerry and Joseph Kane, a sovereign father and son, were responsible for the murders of two Arkansas police officers in 2010 during a routine traffic stop. Other killings were planned, and some took place in Louisiana and Nevada.
So there you are, behind the reference desk—a government agent. And in walks a sovereign. He looks normal, unless you saw his car when he pulled in. The license plate may say “Republic of [State Name]” or “Mu’ur Republic” or “Washitaw” (these are known sovereign groups), or it may say “not for commercial use.” You can tell by his handcrafted ID, if you see it, or by how he writes his name, which may be in red ink (this signifies a bond being canceled) or with hyphens and colons, such as “John-Robert: Doe,” which means the flesh-and-blood person John-Robert of the family Doe, as opposed to the on-paper, debt-ridden figment owned by the U.S. corporation, whose name is written John Robert Doe. The giveaway is how this person talks. He says “travel” instead of “drive” (the former is a God-given right, the latter an act of commerce). He uses a lot of legal terms. His language is archaic, like he just stepped out of a J.R.R. Tolkien novel. How will you serve this patron?
You Can’t Help Everyone
A 2004 article in AALL Spectrum addresses this question. It recaps an AALL Annual Meeting session led by Amy Hale-Janeke and Sharon Blackburn, two librarians with experience handling extreme patrons. First, they said, treat every question seriously and every patron with respect, even the weird ones. Clarify the question by saying, for example, “Could you tell me more? I’m not sure I understand.” Focus on the question, not the patron’s demeanor. If the patron seems sane—i.e., not rambling, disheveled and smelly, prone to outbursts, or talking to unseen companions—then do a regular reference interview.
If the patron does not seem sane, still treat her with respect, but realize your priorities have changed. Your goal is not to find information—the patron likely won’t even look at it—but to avoid a confrontation. Keep your voice even, your gaze steady, and your movements undemonstrative. Don’t argue with the patron; you’ll frustrate yourself and make her mad. Accept her reality. You can even enter it a little, indulging in an absurd digression before steering the talk back to the original request. Maintain boundaries—no touching, no personal questions, and no breaking library policy—and call a colleague over if necessary. Above all, understand that you can’t help everyone. Patrons who don’t seem sane often have crazy requests, and you are not a failure as a librarian for not meeting such requests.
The key is to listen. This is especially true in legal reference interviews. Court systems everywhere are seeing an increase in the number of self-represented litigants, who scarcely know how to handle their cases. Getting little help from overworked courthouse staff, they often turn to librarians, asking us to fill out their forms, summarize the law, explain their rights, or proofread their documents. Sovereign citizens, being confrontational and in love with court filings, are prime candidates for librarian assistance.
Too often, however, when patrons, especially the odd ones, start talking, our minds skip ahead to sources and strategies, and we don’t even hear the whole issue. We avoid active listening, which is listening without distractions and without down-the-road thoughts. Or we answer with why we can’t help—the question is too in-depth, the information doesn’t exist, and we can’t give legal advice, etc.—instead of considering how we can. Our discomfort does not outweigh our obligation, which is found in the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association (ALA): to “provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.”