Thursday, March 15, 2007

Librarians to talk about Patriot Act challenge in Vermont

Seven Days, the Vermont alternative web weekly is running a preview of a presentation to be given by Peter Chase and George Christian later this month. Both are librarians who were on the receiving end of national security letters under the USA Patriot Act and fought them with the assistance of the ACLU.

If I get my hands on the presentation materials, I'll post them here.
Seven Days: Librarians, No Longer Gagged, Detail Patriot Act Abuses

WINDSOR, CT — In September 2003, then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft ridiculed the American Library Association for its “breathless reports and baseless hysteria” about a USA PATRIOT Act provision that allows FBI agents to search library records without a warrant. Until he left office in early 2005, Ashcroft repeatedly denied that the feds were snooping into Americans’ reading habits and computer activities.

In July 2005, Peter Chase and George Christian discovered firsthand that Ashcroft was lying. They couldn’t tell anyone, though — not friends, co-workers or family members — even as Congress debated the Patriot Act’s reauthorization.

Christian is executive director of the Library Connection, a nonprofit consortium in Windsor, Connecticut. Chase is president of the group’s executive committee and director of one of its 27 member libraries. An eight-month gag order prevented them from disclosing that they’d received a “national security letter” from the FBI seeking confidential library computer records.

“We were shocked,” Chase recalls. “None of us had ever heard of a national security letter before.”


Chase and Christian, along with fellow committee members Barbara Bailey and Janet Nocek, decided to fight the warrantless search. Though the librarians were never told why the FBI wanted their files, a federal prosecutor later disclosed that it was a matter of “domestic surveillance.”

The Connecticut librarians have since been released from their gag order. On March 20, they’ll speak at the University of Vermont about how they fought the Patriot Act — and won. Civil libertarians say their case is a chilling example of the threats to privacy rights in the post-9/11 era.

“My initial twinge in opposing [the FBI] was that I was aiding and abetting a catastrophe,” recalls Christian. “But right away, I could glean that they weren’t worried that someone was going to cause a catastrophic event tomorrow.” The letter, he notes, was dated two months earlier, and the records the FBI wanted were six months old. In Connecticut, as in 47 other states, library records are protected by law.

Vermont’s own protections for library records aren’t as strong as those in other states, notes Trina Magi, who chairs Vermont’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. Though library records are exempt from the open-records law, she says, nothing explicitly prevents librarians from disclosing them. Moreover, last year’s Patriot Act reauthorization did nothing to alleviate librarians’ concerns.

“What people read at libraries is confidential,” Chase argues. “People should feel free to come to the library and look up whatever information they need, without thinking that Big Brother is looking over their shoulder.”

In August 2005, the Connecticut librarians sued the federal government, with help from the ACLU. Initially, they were collectively known as “John Doe.” However, because of sloppy redacting of court records by government attorneys, Christian’s and Chase’s identities were made public, and reporters soon came calling.


Even after the librarians’ names were known, the gag order still barred them from discussing their case. Those restrictions reached absurd proportions. When the government asserted that the librarians’ presence in federal court in Bridgeport raised a “national security issue,” they had to watch the proceedings on closed-circuit TV from a locked courtroom in Hartford. When an appeal was heard in federal court in Manhattan, the librarians were allowed to attend but were prohibited from entering the courtroom together, sitting together, speaking to each other, or making eye contact with their attorneys.

Tellingly, the librarians were released from the document request and gag order shortly after the Patriot Act was reauthorized in March 2006. Once the government dropped its appeal, the librarians lost their legal standing to challenge the statute’s constitutionality.

Today, Christian is troubled by how many Americans have apparently complied with NSL requests. “I’m trying to figure out in my mind how 30,000 NSLs can be issued each year,” he says, “and in five years only two people have said, ‘I don’t think so.’”

Peter Chase and George Christian give a lecture titled "Gagged by the Government: Two Librarians Tell How They Resisted the USA PATRIOT Act." Tuesday, March 20, 3:30-5 p.m. Bailey Howe Library, University of Vermont. Free. Info, 656-5723.

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