Vice President, Library Connection Inc.; Director, Plainville Public Library; Chairman, Intellectual Freedom Committee for the Connecticut Library Association
I am a John Doe. I am also Peter Chase, a librarian from Connecticut. And if I had told you before today that I had received an FBI demand for library records, I could have gone to jail.
As a librarian, I believe it is my duty and responsibility to speak out about any infringement to the intellectual freedom of library patrons. But until today, my own government prevented me from fulfilling that duty.
When I and my colleagues received FBI National Security Letters demanding access to our patron’s records, I knew that this power had had already been declared unconstitutional by a district court in New York. The government was telling Congress that it didn’t use the Patriot Act against libraries and that no one’s rights had been violated. I felt that I just could not be part of this fraud being foisted on our nation. We had to defend our patrons and ourselves, and so, represented by the ACLU, we filed a lawsuit challenging the government’s power to demand these records without a court order.
During the first court hearing in Connecticut, I had to sit in a locked room at the Hartford Courthouse to watch the proceedings, which were taking place in a courthouse in Brideport, 60 miles away. I could see that several of my colleagues from the Connecticut library community had come to watch the hearing, even though they didn’t knowing the identity of us “John Does.” It meant a lot to me to realize that it wasn’t just the four of us against the entire U.S. Justice Dept.
The gag had many unexpected effects on my ability to do my job. In my role as chair of the Connecticut Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, I received many invitations to speak about the Patriot Act. But I could no longer accept them for fear that I would inadvertently reveal that I was a John Doe or that I knew something about the case.
It was galling for me to see the government’s attorney in Connecticut, Kevin O’Connor, travel around the state telling people that their library records were safe, while at the same time he was enforcing a gag order preventing me from telling people that their library records were not safe. On one occasion, we were both invited to speak at the same event in Hartford, sponsored by the Women’s League of Voters. Mr. O’Connor accepted his invitation, but I had to refuse mine because of the gag order.
We were aware that we could risk prosecution if we slipped up. But in the end it was actually the government that slipped up, when they sent the court legal papers without blocking out my name and the name of Library Connection. As a result, I suddenly had reporters calling me at work and even at home, trying to get me to admit that I was a “John Doe.”
One of the scariest moments throughout this ordeal was when the ACLU told us that they were consulting with criminal defense lawyers about the risk of prosecution. Thankfully, we are safe now.
While all this was going on, Congress reauthorized the Patriot Act, and the government assured Congress that no one’s right to free speech had ever been violated by the law.
After the revised Patriot Act was signed into law, the government suddenly decided that our identity was not really a security threat after all and that our gag should be lifted. Nothing had changed in the case, so what happened to the threat to national security?
The fight is not over yet, though. While we won the right to identify ourselves, the question of the FBI’s National Security Letter demand for information has not been settled. The battle continues, but at least now we can speak out publicly about our fight to preserve the freedoms that we all hold dear.
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