Sept. 12, 2005 – With congressional debate over renewing the controversial USA Patriot Act set to take place later this month, a federal judge Friday decided to lift a mandatory gag order placed on a librarian challenging government searches of library records. But the ruling gives government lawyers until September 20 to reshape their argument and appeal to a higher court before it goes into effect.
- ACLU Seeks to Unseal Library Search Court Records, Open Case to Public* (Aug 26, 2005)
- Court Papers Unsealed in Patriot Act Challenge (Sep 2, 2005)
The case came about after the FBI served an organization that holds library patronsâ€™ book and internet records with a "national security letter" (NSL) demanding information about an undisclosed patron. The librarian and the organization he or she represents did not comply with the request and instead enlisted the help of the ACLU to challenge the governmentâ€™s right to issue such subpoenas without a court order and in complete secrecy.
National Security Letters, which are issued internally by the FBI without court oversight, carry a mandatory order prohibiting recipients from telling anyone about the search. The ACLU has asked the court to lift the gag order to allow its client to speak to Congress about the search as lawmakers debate the renewal and expansion of Patriot Act powers.
In deciding the case, US District Judge Janet C. Hall said FBI lawyers failed to prove a compelling interest in preventing the librarian, referred to in court documents as "John Doe," from disclosing that it had been served with the letter. Lawyers for the government argued that national security interests in pursuit of the "war on terror" trump the publicâ€™s right to know.
But the ACLUâ€™s client cannot yet speak openly about the NSL because Hall gave the government 20 days to appeal the ruling.
Nevertheless, the ACLU declared victory. Friday, ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero applauded Judge Hallâ€™s ruling, the second such legal decision to beat back expanded use of the NSLs.
"Today, the judiciary's role was reaffirmed in the government's war on terror," said Romero. "Seizing library and Internet records without judicial authorization offends most Americans, regardless of political ideology. We can be safe without sacrificing our most basic civil liberties."
Government officials have previously denied in testimony to Congress that NSLs have been used to obtain library records.