Editor’s note: On Sept. 16, federal prosecutors appealed Judge Janet Hall’s ruling.
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — A federal judge lifted a gag order late last week that shielded the identity of librarians who received an FBI demand for records about library patrons under the Patriot Act.
U.S. District Judge Janet Hall on Sept. 9 ruled in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued that the gag order prevented its client from participating in a debate over whether Congress should reauthorize the Patriot Act.
“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 in John Doe v. Gonzales 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 considering an appeal.
Prosecutors argued that the gag order blocked the release of the client’s identity, not the client’s ability to speak about the Patriot Act. They said revealing the client’s identity could tip off suspects and jeopardize a federal investigation into terrorism or spying.
Hall rejected the argument that the gag order didn’t silence the client.
“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.
What is known about the FBI request in this case is that 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. The letter said the information was relevant to an investigation of terrorism or spying.
Federal prosecutors say that identifying recipients of such letters would allow targets of investigations to flee or provide misinformation.
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 secret proceedings in immigration cases.
More than a dozen provisions of the act are set to expire at the end of this year. Liberals and libertarian-oriented conservatives have pressed for changes, citing privacy and civil liberties concerns.
Hall also expressed concerns about the act, writing: “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.”