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ACLU Seeks to Unseal Library Search Court Records, Open Case to Public*

by Brendan Coyne

*A correction was appended to this news brief after initial publication.

Aug. 26, 2005 – Decrying an automatic gag order on a challenge to federal law enforcement agencies’ broad search powers, the American Civil Liberties Union said it is asking a court to allow one of the group’s clients to speak openly about government searches of library records and the Patriot Act.

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The recently revealed lawsuit was filed under seal and remains heavily censored in accordance with the gag order it challenges. The ACLU’s client is supposed to remain anonymous.

In a statement yesterday, the ACLU said its client is a member of the American Library Association and holds library patrons’ borrowing and Internet usage records. According to the publicly accessible portions of the court records, the Federal Bureau of Investigation served the unnamed organization with a National Security Letter (NSL) demanding information on an unspecified number of people’s library records.

The complaint, ACLU v Alberto Gonzales, was filed in the United States District Court for Connecticut.

Federal law enforcement agencies can use NSLs to demand lending, purchase, Internet activity and other records from third-party record-holders like libraries, online service providers and bookstores, all without seeking judicial approval. The law dictates that the institution served with an NSL must keep information about the request confidential, even from anyone named in the warrant.

The authority to issue the letters was first granted in 1986, under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. With the October 2001 passage of the USA Patriot Act, the FBI’s use of the subpoena letters was legally extended to cover the records of individuals and groups not under suspicion of a crime.

In the NSL involved in the current ACLU case, a copy of which was filed with the suit, the record-keeping organization is directed to give the FBI "any and all subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person or entity related to" an unnamed person or group.

According to the ACLU, the anonymous client is seeking to testify at upcoming joint congressional hearings on renewing the Patriot Act, but is prohibited from doing so due to the existence of the gag order. The group hopes its suit can free the anonymous client to address Congress.

CORRECTION

Minor Change:

When this piece was originally published, the sentence that now reads:

In a statement yesterday, the ACLU said its client is a member of the American Library Association and holds library patrons’ borrowing and Internet usage records.

...was written:

In a statement yesterday, the ACLU said it was acting on behalf of a library that belongs to the American Library Association and that holds library patrons’ borrowing and Internet usage records

The ACLU has not in fact revealed that its client is a library.

 | Change Posted August 26, 2005 at 12:06 PM EST

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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