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The Freedom to Speak About the Freedom to Speak

Lisa Graves,
Legislative Counsel
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September 12, 2005

Last week in Washington, people were waiting anxiously for the decision in the ACLU lawsuit challenging an FBI demand for records from a member of the American Library Association. We had heard that a decision was likely by the end of the week.

Congress was back in session and the Hill was abuzz with work responding to the natural disaster and human disaster on the gulf coast. After emergency funding passed, attention turned to how to reform homeland security efforts as well as the funeral for Chief Justice Rehnquist. In the midst of all this, we continued to press for reform to the Patriot Act.

On Thursday, as thousands of people across the country gathered for the debut of The ACLU Freedom Files, we joined Hill staff and everyday Americans for a premiere party to highlight the need to reform the Patriot Act. Our house party was in “the people’s house,” the House of Representatives. Almost a 100 people were in attendance and several asked for DVDs afterwards, so they could to share the show with others. The ACLU’s Executive Director Anthony Romero introduced the program and at its conclusion we urged those in the audience to help support efforts to reform the Patriot Act.

The next day brought extraordinary news in the federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of one of the most controversial powers expanded by the Patriot Act, the power of the FBI to demand library and Internet records without court approval and without any specific facts connecting the records sought to a suspected foreign terrorist. Late Friday, the news finally came late Friday that a federal judge ruled that the librarian who received the FBI’s “national security letter’ demanding records should be freed from the gag order imposed by the law.

The ruling vindicates our Constitution’s protection of freedom of speech, and repudiates the Justice Department’s claim of an unchecked right to gag, forever, people who receive such demands from the FBI. As the judge herself noted in the ruling, it is especially vital, and fundamentally American, that our client be heard now, as the public struggles to learn how these secretive powers are being used, and as Congress considers amendments to these and other far-reaching surveillance powers.

The message that our First Amendment freedoms were being protected by our courts was greeted by allies and congressional advisors with joy! Congratulations echoed across the wires as news spread that another courageous judge had stood firm in protecting one of our most precious freedoms from prior restraint by the government: the liberty to speak, the freedom to be part of this historic political debate about freedom of speech itself.