Citizen Bane: A Librarian's Primer on Sovereign Citizens

Librarians are there to help all patrons, regardless of background or beliefs.

A little patience, respect, and active listening can go a long way.

I once worked for a private law library that allowed public access on one condition: A person had to show a driver’s license or other government ID to be admitted.

Most people did this without complaint. However, there was one woman who presented, instead of a driver’s license, a laminated card issued by the “Republic of the United States.” The card was typewritten and included her picture, but the thing had clearly been made at a FedEx store.

When I told the woman I couldn’t accept this document, that she needed a real government-issued ID, she sighed in an I-get-this-all-the-time manner. She explained the ID was real because she was a free person, not owned by a foreign corporation, which the United States is. Therefore, not being subject to that corporation’s laws, she should be allowed to enter the library.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but that’s not our policy. You need a traditional state ID.” She argued a little more before grabbing her backpack and leaving. Now, it was my turn to sigh — a sigh of relief. I had just encountered a sovereign citizen.

Things could have gone so much worse.


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The sovereign citizen concept has been around for a while — it is rooted in William Potter Gale’s Posse Comitatus movement of the 1970s — but has gotten increased attention from law enforcement in recent years, especially with the rise of QAnon, which has attracted new members. The movement is not a unified one, but most adherents share similar convictions.

Based on corrupt readings of the Fourteenth Amendment, sovereign citizens believe that the United States is not a legitimate nation but a bankrupt foreign corporation whose laws do not affect them. 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.”


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One strain of the movement is called “commercial redemption.”

Redemption theory usually holds that a birth certificate, issued under corporate law, creates a fictitious person, or “straw man,” with the same name as a person. Each person born in the United States and issued a birth certificate is used as collateral for the corporate government’s debt. The birth certificate creates a fictitious person, or “straw man,” in whose name a loan is taken out and the proceeds deposited into a secret government account, sometimes called a Treasury Direct Account. The person can access these secret funds by filing a set of documents, which are available for a price.

In other words, it’s a scam.

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 to law enforcement. In 2021, for example, Misty Thompson was arrested for stalking a local judge overseeing her child custody case. That same year, Michael Nissen was sentenced to three and a half years for threatening police officers for giving him traffic tickets. In 2023, Jared John Nielsen was arrested for threatening to shoot his own co-workers.

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 him by his handcrafted ID if you see it or how he writes his name, which may be in red ink (this signifies a bond being cancelled) 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 US 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 Tolkien novel.


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How will you serve this patron?

A 2004 article in AALL Spectrum, the member magazine of the American Association of Law Libraries, addresses this question. The article is based on the work of Amy Hale-Janeke and Sharon Blackburn, two librarians with experience handling extreme patrons. First, says the article, 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 becomes stressed or combative, still treat them 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 them mad, which can lead to violence. Accept their reality. Maintain boundaries — no touching, no personal questions, no breaking library policy — and call a colleague over if necessary. 

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. We avoid active listening, which is listening without distractions, 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, we can’t give legal advice — instead of considering how we can.

Bottom line: Sovereign citizens can be unnerving and occasionally dangerous. Learn about them. Be prepared, but don’t worry. Most of all, give them what they want, within reason. It’s our job and the best way to avoid a confrontation.



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