The Library Connection case

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice very earnestly.

“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

What made the case of the Connecticut librarians of The Library Connection so compelling was that is was taking place against the backdrop of the congressional debates over re-authorization of the expiring provisions of the Patriot Act.

Here was a group of librarians, served with a National Security Letter, who took a stand based on the questionable constitutionality of the provisions of the Patriot Act (i.e., lack of judicial review) and on their professional ethics, as expressed in the Library Bill of Rights. They were standing up for patrons’ rights to privacy, and intellectual freedom.

In the summer of 2005, George Christian, the executive director of The Library Connection, received a request directing the consortium to provide all ”subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person or entity related to” a specific IP address for a 45-minute period on February 15, 2005. Because of the gag rule covering such national security letter requests, however, Mr. Christian, and the other officials of the consortium were prohibited from discussing the matter with anyone. In fact, they were unsure whether or not they could even discuss it with the board of directors, or with counsel.

Because of being put in this impossible situation, and because of the constitutional and ethical issues involved, they decided to fight the request, and sought legal representation by the ACLU. Their legal challenge, however, did not mean that they were free to discuss the case, and a US Circuit Court ruled that they must abide by the gag order while the government made its arguments.

The irony of this case, however, is that while the government lawyers were arguing against allowing the librarians (known collectively as John Doe) from speaking about the case, the government’s own sloppy record keeping had actually allowed the identity of The Library Connection to be revealed publicly in court documents.

Ultimately, the FBI dropped its gag order, but this was in early 2006 – after the Patriot Act had already been re-authorized by Congress. The FBI heaped scorn on the idea that they purposely prevented the librarians from commenting so that they could not participate in the debate about the act’s renewal. But this seems dubious, especially in light of the fact that the FBI did not aggressively pursue the investigation that it claimed information was needed for.

The renewed Patriot Act was modified to allow recipients of national security letters to consult attorneys, but the most egregious provisions under Section 215 still apply. George Christian noted at the end of this affair, that if the government’s demand had been in the form of a court-sanctioned subpoena or warrant, the consortium would ”have been as cooperative as possible.” But because the FBI used a national security letter, which requires no judicial review, they felt they had to question its constitutionality.

Sources:

“A Court Fight to Keep a Secret That’s Long Been Revealed,” Alison Leigh Cowan. New York Times. November 18, 2005. p. B.1

“Librarian Is Still John Doe, Despite Patriot Act Revision,” Alison Leigh Cowan. New York Times: March 21, 2006. p. B.3

“Librarians Win As U.S. Relents On Secrecy Law,” Anahad O’Connor. New York Times. April 13, 2006. p. B.1

“Four Librarians Finally Break Silence in Records Case,” Alison Leigh Cowan. New York Times. May 31, 2006. p. B.3

“U.S. Ends a Yearlong Effort to Obtain Library Records Amid Secrecy in Connecticut,” Alison Leigh Cowan. New York Times .June 27, 2006. p. B.6

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