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Llibrary sues over controversial Patriot Act

August 25, 2005

By Chris Sanders

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A controversial Patriot Act clause
allowing the U.S. government to demand information about
library patrons’ borrowing habits is being challenged in
federal court for the first time by a library.

The lawsuit was filed against U.S. Attorney General Alberto
Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller in the U.S. District
Court for the District of Connecticut by an unnamed library and
the American Civil Liberties Union.

The suit — filed on August 9 and made public by the ACLU
on Thursday — calls the FBI’s order to produce library records
“unconstitutional on its face” and said a gag order preventing
public discussion of the lawsuit is an unlawful restraint on
speech.

Critical details of the lawsuit were blacked out on the
ACLU’s Web site in compliance with the gag order. The library
is thought to be based in Connecticut since the lawsuit was
filed there with the participation of the Connecticut branch of
the ACLU.

The ACLU said in its lawsuit that legal changes made under
the Patriot Act “remove any requirement of individualized
suspicion, (and) the FBI may now … demand sensitive
information about innocent people.”

Enacted after the September 11, 2001, attacks, the Patriot
Act lets U.S. authorities seek approval from a special court to
search personal records of terror suspects from bookstores,
businesses, hospitals and libraries, in a provision known as
the library clause.

The FBI letter requesting the information, called a
National Security Letter, is effectively a gag order because it
tells the recipient that the request must be kept secret.

As a result, “the Patriot Act is itself gagging public
debate about the Patriot Act,” said Ann Beeson, the ACLU’s lead
lawyer in the case.

The civil liberties group has asked the District Court to
lift the gag order so its client can participate in the public
debate and upcoming congressional hearings on the Patriot Act.
A hearing about lifting the gag order is scheduled for
Wednesday in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

An FBI spokesman referred calls to the Department of
Justice. A Justice spokesman said the department had no comment
and declined to say if it had required libraries to turn over
records under the Patriot Act.

The U.S. House of Representatives, ignoring protests from
civil liberties groups, voted this summer to reauthorize 16
provisions of the act that expire at the end of the year,
including the library clause. The Senate is expected to take up
the matter after lawmakers return from an August recess.

A copy of the ACLU lawsuit said the library involved
“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.”

The FBI, in a copy of the letter demanding the library
records and attached to the lawsuit, said “the information
sought is relevant to an authorized investigation to protect
against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence
activities.”




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