WASHINGTON -The American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, the Free Congress Foundation and members of Congress gathered today to urge the Justice Department to lift a gag order silencing Americans who have received demands for personal records under the Patriot Act. "John Doe," an organization that is an ALA member and a client of the ACLU, is challenging a provision of the anti-terrorism law, parts of which are up for reauthorization.
"Lawmakers are finalizing Patriot Act reauthorization legislation as we speak, but Americans can't fairly assess the impact of the Patriot Act without the voice of John Doe," said Lisa Graves, ACLU Senior Counsel for Legislative Strategy. "Former attorney general John Ashcroft called concerns about library records 'baseless hysteria.' But ordinary Americans have good reason to be concerned about how secretive search powers expanded by the Patriot Act are being used. The flawed powers are licenses for fishing expeditions."
Papers in the case, Doe v. Gonzales, show that John Doe is a member of the ALA and possesses "a wide array of sensitive information about library patrons, including information about the reading materials borrowed by library patrons and about Internet usage by library patrons." A judge recently ruled that the gag should be lifted, but John Doe remains gagged while the government is appealing the ruling.
"America's librarians urge Attorney General Gonzales to let John Doe speak," said Michael Gorman, President of the ALA. "Provisions of the Patriot Act dealing with personal records, including library use, are an assault on constitutional liberties. Librarians across the country have been on the front lines of the debate over the Patriot Act, and John Doe is perhaps the most powerful witness to the direct impact of this flawed legislation."
The lawsuit specifically challenges the National Security Letter provision of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the FBI to demand a range of personal records without court approval, including library records and the identity of people who have used library computers. The Patriot Act dramatically expands the NSL power by permitting the FBI to demand records about Americans who are not suspected of any wrongdoing.
The House and Senate have passed different versions of reauthorization legislation. The ACLU says the Senate bill takes steps in the right direction but does not cure all of the flaws in the law. Under the House version, the Patriot Act would be made worse in many ways and those who violate the automatic and permanent gag orders would face prison time. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), Representatives Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Bernard Sanders (I-VT) and Steve Lilienthal of the Free Congress Foundation also spoke in support of reforming the Patriot Act's secretive powers.
"An independent judge rightfully recognized that gagging our client in the Patriot Act debate violates the First Amendment and is profoundly undemocratic," said Ann Beeson, ACLU Associate Legal Director and the lead attorney in the case. "Essentially the government is using the Patriot Act to silence and punish people who question the Patriot Act. That undemocratic restraint must be lifted immediately."