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Taking the NSL Case to Capitol Hill

Lisa Graves,
Legislative Counsel
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October 4, 2005

Last week, people concerned about the Patriot Act’s secretive powers came together in Washington to demand that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales “Let John Doe Speak”. John Doe is the pseudonym for the Connecticut member of the American Library Association who received a secret National Security Letter from the FBI, demanding personal records.

A federal court has ordered that John Doe be allowed to exercise his First Amendment rights and participate in the public debate about reforming the very Patriot Act powers that currently gag his speech. The government won a stay while it appeals this decision, but Congress is already poised to reauthorize the Patriot Act and make the National Security Letter provisions easier to impose, and worse for democracy.

During the Capitol Hill press conference, several librarians stood with tape over their mouths — with “NSL” printed across the tape. Senator Russ Feingold, the only member of the Senate who had the courage to vote against the Patriot Act in 2001, addressed the group, after being introduced by the ACLU’s top litigator on these cases, Ann Beeson. (Feingold’s comments – PDF)

Congressman Bernie Sanders of Vermont joined Senator Feingold in calling for reform to these powers (Sanders’s comments – PDF). Sanders has led the fight in the House to protect Americans’ freedom to read. He also may very well become the next Senator from the Green Mountain State. Then Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York, who has led the fight to reform the National Security Letter power, spoke out against the gag order and reminded the audience of the fundamental American values requiring checks on government power, such as the need for facts that warrant government searches. (Nadler’s comments- PDF)

The leader of the Connecticut Library Association read a statement by Senator Durbin (PDF) noting that the administration seems intent to keep its actions secret while invading the private records of people. She also spoke out eloquently on behalf of the gagged John Doe. Finally, the incoming president of the American Library Association noted how even middle school students are chilled from researching current events, and called for the Attorney General Gonzales to ungag John Doe. In a dramatic moment, the eight “gagged” librarians behind her ripped off their own gags as she spoke.