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arstechnica.com/,.....Patriot Act smackdown: Librarians 1, FBI 0

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28 Jun 2006 1:27 PM
Patriot Act smackdown: Librarians 1, FBI 0

6/27/2006 10:59:30 PM, by Peter Pollack

Like the Little Engine that Could, for the past year, a group of four librarians have chugged on against the might of the FBI in a case against the Patriot Act. In spite of the best efforts of the Justice Department, the librarians have struck a blow for free speech and won.

Our tale begins on February 15, 2005, in a still-undisclosed small town library in Connecticut. Between 4:00 and 4:45pm on that day, a patron apparently accessed a computer and used it to announce some sort of terrorist threat. The FBI swung into gear, tracked the source of the threat to a particular computer, and sent a National Security Letter (NSL) to several librarians associated with Library Connection, Inc.a service which supplies Internet access to 26 public libraries, including the one in question.

The NSL is a legal oddity of the Patriot Act, and it allows the FBI to make a unilateral demand which would usually require court oversight. In effect, an NSL requires the FBI to police itself, making it similar to asking the fox to watch a mirror. Although exact figures are impossible to come by, it is estimated that some 30,000 NSLs are now sent out each year. An NSL also comes with the added bonus onus of never allowing the recipient to publicly discuss its contents, topic, or even existence. In other words, the recipient is supposed to get the NSL, comply with it, and pretend nothing ever happened.

In this case, what did happen was that one of the librarians, George Christian, brought the letter before the executive board of Library Connection. That board contacted the ACLU, and in August that organization filed a request to lift the gag order on the grounds that it prevented the librarians from exercising their First Amendment rights.

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