The ACLU reports a victory in this press release:
The American Civil Liberties Union today declared victory in their legal battle with the FBI over a Connecticut library group’s right to keep patron records private. After dropping their vehement defense of the gag provision accompanying the request, the FBI has now abandoned the demand all together.
“First the government abandoned the gag order that would have silenced four librarians for the rest of their lives, and now they’ve abandoned their demand for library records entirely,” said Ann Beeson, Associate Legal Director of the ACLU. “While the government’s real motives in this case have been questionable from the beginning, their decision to back down is a victory not just for librarians but for all Americans who value their privacy.”
The Library Connection, a consortium of 26 Connecticut libraries, sought help from the ACLU when the FBI demanded patron records through a National Security Letter last summer. This controversial Patriot Act tool allows the government to demand, without court approval, records of people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing. Anyone who receives such a demand is gagged from disclosing the mere existence of the request.
The librarians can now disclose the NSL they received, which has never before been released in full. The NSL shows that the FBI was seeking all records associated with a particular computer. The NSL was dated May 19, 2005, but Library Connection did not receive the NSL until July 13, 2005.
“We pursued this matter because librarians should protect the privacy of our patrons,” said George Christian, Executive Director of Library Connection. “Everyone has the responsibility to make sure the government plays by the rules.”
The librarians were never forced to comply with the demand and the records were never turned over to the authorities. According to the ACLU, the librarians might have been willing to comply with a similar demand if it had been approved by a judge.
Many of the court documents in the case remain technically under seal, including documents filed in the Supreme Court in an emergency appeal last fall. Some of the most critical information was carelessly redacted by the government. The New York Times was the first to notice that Library Connection’s name was revealed as was the identity of “John Doe.” The information was published in September 2005 but the government waited until April, more than six weeks after the Patriot Act had been reauthorized by Congress, to drop its legal battle to keep the gag intact, and a full month longer to drop its request all together.
The ACLU will continue to pursue the unsealing of all documents in the case and expects all of the documents to be made public soon.
The Connecticut case is one of two legal challenges brought by the ACLU against the NSL provision of the Patriot Act. In New York, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of an anonymous Internet Service Provider who received an NSL. In September 2004, Judge Victor Marrero of the Southern District of New York issued a landmark decision striking down the NSL statute and the associated gag provision. Judge Marrero will now rehear the case in light of revisions made by Congress.
For statements from each of the four librarians, as well as more information on the legal challenges, go to www.aclu.org/nsl
The NSL is available online at: www.aclu.org/safefree/nationalsecurityletters/25995lgl20060626.html