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Vol. LXII, No. 26
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
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Award-Winning Princeton Lawyer Is Champion of Privacy Rights

Ellen Gilbert

It probably comes as no surprise to those who have heard her speak at one the many local post-Patriot Act symposiums on intellectual freedom that Grayson Barber’s website includes a copy of W.H. Auden’s poem, “The Unknown Citizen.” As a First Amendment litigator and privacy advocate with a solo practice in Princeton, she does not necessarily hold “the proper opinions for the time of year,” and it is for that very reason that she recently received a “Library Champions” award from the New Jersey Library Association.

Choosing her words carefully, Ms. Barber, who does volunteer work for the American Civil Liberties Union and chairs the privacy committee of its New Jersey affiliate, discussed her passion for the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

“The government is accountable to the people — people are in charge,” said Ms. Barber. Speaking of the current administration in Washington, she noted that “the perception is that the government is the boss. There should be limits on the government’s power.”

“You should be able to form your own opinion, have your own beliefs, read whatever you want, without being afraid of punishment,” the Pasadena-born lawyer said. The notion that information disclosed on the internet is “up for grabs for anyone” is of particular concern to her right now, and she offered the hypothetical example of an Islamic high school student interested in learning more about militant Islam, but afraid to go to the library for fear that “the FBI will come and my family will be deported.” She points out that in the current environment, the “war on terrorism” has evolved into a “war on immigrants, and criminals have more rights than undocumented aliens.”

In addition to her work for the ACLU, Ms. Barber, who works at home and does all of her work relating to the First Amendment pro bono, is the immediate past chair of the Individual Rights Section of the N.J. State Bar Association. She has served on the N.J. Privacy Study Commission and the State Supreme Court Special Committee on Public Access to Court Records. Most recently she was named a fellow at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy (she was already a lecturer in the University’s Political Science department). Under the leadership of Computer Science Professor Ed Felton, whom Ms. Barber describes as “visionary,” the 37-year old center helps “leaders react to digital technology with thoughtfulness and confidence,” according to its website. One of the center’s current projects, she reported, is straightening out the kinks in touch-screen voting machines. Her appointment, which begins in September, is for one year, and her salary, she notes with a laugh, is $0.

The Rutgers University Law School graduate was also, until recently, a member of the Princeton Public Library’s Board of Trustees, and, not surprisingly for a “library champion,” libraries rate high on her list of enthusiasms. “An educated electorate is essential to a functioning democracy,” she observed. She sees the library as a community-builder and guardian of intellectual freedom, and says that organizations “that speak up,” like the American Library Association, the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International give her “room for hope.” She lauded the recent Supreme Court decision in favor of Guantanamo detainees, but did not sugar-coat the business of being alert to threats to individual freedom. Besides Auden, her website quotes 19th century Congressman Thaddeus Stevens who described the “great labor” of guarding “the rights of the poor and downtrodden,” as the “eternal labor of Sisyphus, forever to be renewed.”

The process of renewal and the chance to make mistakes feature in Ms. Barber’s own description of how she became a First Amendment lawyer. She came to Princeton as a graduate student in psychology and neuroscience (“I worked in a monkey lab”) in 1978. “It was not a good fit,” she admits. Princeton “wasn’t ready for women,” and she “couldn’t cope with the coed shower in the graduate college.” She left graduate school for a job as a computer programmer at Mathematica Policy Research (“they kept me as long as they possibly could”), before she moved on to the state’s Office of Telecommunications. It was the 1980s, and she had another “visionary” boss at that time who recognized that computer main frames were being connected and “somebody needed to understand privacy.” Going to law school at night, Ms. Barber became interested in being a privacy advocate.

She cites her story as one of the glories of being in the U.S., where you can always move onto something else, unlike some countries “where you’re pigeon-holed at the age of 16 into a career track for the rest of your life.” Here, she says, “you can engage in innovation — you have room to make mistakes. It’s the great thing about our culture: false starts are okay. The U.S. is the beacon, the envy of the world.”

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