Washington, DC, April 11, 2007—Following dramatic testimony today from a Connecticut librarian who successfully challenged an abusive FBI National Security Letter (NSL), organizations representing booksellers, librarians, publishers and writers called on Congress to restore the safeguards for reader privacy that were eliminated by the USA Patriot Act.

George Christian, the executive director of a library consortium, Library Connection, was one of four Library Connection librarians who received an NSL in 2005 demanding the Internet records of their patrons.  They joined ACLU in filing a legal challenge to the NSL.  However, the NSL was accompanied by a gag order so restrictive that they could not reveal it had been received, could not be seen together in public with their attorney, and had to file the legal challenge as “John Doe.”  A federal judge ordered the gag lifted to permit the librarians to participate in the debate over the re-authorization of the Patriot Act, but it remained in place pending the Justice Department’s appeal.   The government withdrew the NSL and the gag order last year, but not until after Congress reauthorized the Patriot Act.

Speaking to Congress for the first time about his ordeal, Christian said, “Our saga should raise a big patriotic American flag of caution about how our civil liberties are being sorely tested by law enforcement abuses of National Security Letters.”
Leaders of the Campaign for Reader Privacy praised Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights for scheduling the hearings following recent revelations about the FBI’s misuse of the NSL authority and for inviting Christian to testify.  “Senator Feingold is a champion of constitutional rights and has understood the dangers of the PATRIOT Act from its inception and we applaud his continuing efforts to improve the law to make sure our liberties are protected,” Emily Sheketoff, Executive Director of the Washington office of the American Library Association, said.

“Booksellers everywhere join in celebrating the ungagging of George Christian and his brave colleagues at Library Connection who protected the privacy of their patrons reading records by challenging the NSL,” Oren Teicher, the Chief Operating Officer of the American Booksellers Association, said.

“Coming after a major report by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General recounting the widespread abuse of the National Security Letter authority, George Christian’s testimony drove home the point that the abuses were not just abstract, bureaucratic errors,” said Larry Siems, Director of Freedom to Write and International Programs. “Real people have received these questionable orders and had their lives turned upside down by their gag provisions. It is time for Congress to finish what it started last year and restore meaningful checks on the administration’s search and surveillance authority.”

Former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, President of the Association of American Publishers, said: “Thanks to the personal and professional courage of four Connecticut librarians, Congress and the American people now understand what it’s like to live under an NSL gag order—to literally have your right to free speech taken away.  Finally, George Christian has been able to tell Congress their story.  Now it’s time for the 110th Congress to do what the 109th failed to do: restore reader privacy protections and civil liberties safeguards to the Patriot Act.”

The Campaign for Reader Privacy was organized in 2004 to fight for changes in the Patriot Act.  Sections 215 and 505 of the Patriot Act authorize the FBI to obtain records of people who are not suspected of criminal conduct, including the records of the books they have purchased or borrowed from bookstores and libraries as well as the Internet records of library patrons.  The Campaign for Reader Privacy believes that the Patriot Act should be amended to require the government to demonstrate a connection between the records sought and suspected terrorists.  It also seeks changes that will make it easier for librarians and booksellers to challenge these orders in court and to limit the length and scope of the accompanying gag orders.

Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660 ext. 105, lsiems@pen.org