Four Librarians Gagged and Threatened With Prison Time Under the Patriot Act

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Using the broad powers granted under the USA PATRIOT Act, the FBI demanded that 4 librarians produce private information about library patrons’ reading habits, then used an endless gag order to force them to remain silent about the request for the rest of their lives under penalty of prison time.

In July 2005, two FBI agents came to the office of the Library Connection, located in Windsor, Connecticut. The Library Connection is a nonprofit co-op of library databases that arranges record-sharing between 27 different libraries. It facilitates book rental tracking and other services.

The FBI handed Library Connection’s executive director George Christian a document which demanded that he produce “any and all subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person or entity” that had used library computers between 4:00 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. on February 15, 2005, in any of the 27 libraries whose computer systems were managed by the Library Connection.

The FBI was demanding that the library hand over private data on library patrons en masse “to protect against international terrorism.”

The document that Mr. Christian was given was a so-called National Security Letter (NSL), a type of administrative subpoena for personal information — self-written by the FBI without any probable cause or judicial oversight. The legal framework for these powerful NSLs was established by Section 505 of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001.

What’s more, Mr. Christian was placed under a perpetual gag order. The NSL prohibited the recipient “from disclosing to any person that the F.B.I. has sought or obtained access to information or records under these provisions.” The gag order was broad enough that it was a crime to discuss the matter to any other person — for life. The USA PATRIOT Act allows for this suppression of speech, and issues a punishment of up to 5 years in prison for anyone caught violating the endless gag order.

When Mr. Christian received the NSL, he was unsure about whether or not he could even consult a lawyer or his board of directors. Technically, the gag order did indeed prevent any such discussion.

The only reason we know about this case today is because Mr. Christian and 3 other library board members fought back in court. The other librarians involved were Barbara Bailey, president of the Library Connection; Peter Chase, vice president of the Library Connection; and Jan Nocek, secretary of the Library Connection.

The ACLU took up their cause and challenged the validity of the gag order in court. The librarians became known as the Connecticut Four, but could not individually identified for many months. In suing U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, they could only be named “John Doe” and were required to remain in silence about the case under threat of prison time. The case was known as Doe v. Gonzales.

The lawsuit stated that the Library Connection “strictly guards the confidentiality and privacy of its library and Internet records, and believes it should not be forced to disclose such records without a showing of compelling need and approval by a judge.”

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The Connecticut Four, from left to right: Janet Nocek, Peter Chase, George Christian, and Barbara Bailey. (Source: Robert Deutsch / USA Today)