Friday, September 09, 2005

Praise Librarians


Judge Rules Against Government In Patriot Act Case
8:33 PM EDT, September 9, 2005 Associated Press

STAMFORD, Conn. -- A federal judge on Friday lifted a gag order that shielded the identity of librarians who received an FBI demand for records about library patrons under the Patriot Act.

U.S. District Court Judge Janet Hall ruled in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued that the gag order prevented their client from participating in a debate over whether Congress should reauthorize the Patriot Act. Government officials have said they have not used the Patriot Act against a library, so the case could prove influential in that debate, the ACLU said.

"It's fabulous," said ACLU Associate Legal Director Ann Beeson.

"Clearly the judge recognized it was profoundly undemocratic to gag a librarian from participating in the Patriot Act debate."

The ruling would allow the ACLU and its client to identify who received the request for records, but Hall stayed her decision until Sept. 20 to give the government a chance to appeal.

Prosecutors said they were reviewing the decision and were considering an appeal.

Prosecutors said the gag order prevented the release of the client's identity, not the client's ability to speak about the Patriot Act. They also argued that revealing the identity of the librarians could tip off suspects and jeopardize a federal investigation into terrorism or spying.

Hall, in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport, rejected those arguments.

"The government may intend the non-disclosure provision to serve some purpose other than the suppression of speech," Hall wrote.

"Nevertheless, it has the practical effect of silencing individuals with a constitutionally protected interest in speech and whose voices are particularly important in an ongoing national debate about the intrusion of governmental authority into individual lives."

The ruling rejected the gag order in this case, but it did not strike down the provision of the law used by the FBI to demand the library records. A broader challenge to that provision is still pending before Hall.

Hall, however, said she was troubled that the law was too broad and prohibits the client from ever disclosing its identity. She also noted that former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft had accused critics who feared abuse of the increased access to library records of "hysteria."

"The potential for abuse is written into the statute: the very people who might have information regarding investigative abuses and overreaching are preemptively prevented from sharing that information with the public and with the legislators who empower the executive branch with the tools used to investigate matters of national security," Hall wrote.

The Patriot Act, passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, allowed expanded surveillance of terror suspects, increased use of material witness warrants to hold suspects incommunicado and permitted secret proceedings in immigration cases. More than a dozen provisions are set to expire at the end of this year.

Before the Patriot Act, the law allowed the FBI to get records of a person or group suspected of acting on behalf of a foreign power, or under 1993 amendments, the records of someone thought to be communicating with such a foreign agent about international terrorism.

The Patriot Act in 2001 removed the requirement that the records sought be those of someone under suspicion. Now an innocent person's records can be obtained if the FBI considers them relevant to a terrorism or spying investigation.

Last September in another ACLU lawsuit, a federal judge in New York struck down this provision of law as unconstitutional under the First and Fourth Amendments on grounds that it restrains free speech and bars or deters judicial challenges to government searches. That ruling is suspended pending an appeal to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

On an undisclosed date, the FBI delivered what is known as a National Security Letter to the ACLU's client, which maintains traditional library book records as well as records on Internet use by its patrons.

The letter demanded "any and all subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person or entity related to" something or someone whose name is blacked out in the publicly released version of the letter. It said the information is relevant to an investigation of terrorism or spying.

Hall asked the government to provide her classified documents that would give her a better understanding of the investigation.

"Nothing specific about this investigation has been put before the court that supports the conclusion that revealing Doe's identity will harm it," she wrote.

Federal prosecutors say in the documents that identifying recipients of such letters would allow targets of the investigation to flee, hide or provide misinformation that could frustrate their investigations.

To comment on this story, or to request a correction click here to send a message to Karen Hunter, The Courant's reader representative. Click here to read Karen's daily Weblog.


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