Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Connecticut Four

My first job interview out of library school was for the position of Children’s Librarian at the Old Lyme Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library. The Library Director at PGN at that time was Peter Chase. Peter eventually moved on and is currently the Director of the Plainville Public Library. He has been on my mind frequently of late because as you may have seen in the news media, he is also a member of the Connecticut Four. He became a member of this elite club by doing what many librarians do – volunteering his time as an officer of a non-profit library consortium. What he got for his trouble (along with two other officers and the Executive Director of the consortium called Library Connections, Inc.) was a visit from the FBI, a National Security Letter demanding confidential records about library users, and a gag order prohibiting him from telling anyone about it – his staff, board members, the media, friends, family, even his spouse – EVER!

The prospect of being visited by federal agents or other law enforcement officials who demand that you violate the fundamental and most basic tenets of your profession or else risk imprisonment is enough to make a person shake in his or her boots, and librarians I know who have received such visits freely admit to doing just that. I imagine that the Connecticut Four were shaking in their boots as well, but not only did they refuse to turn the records over to the FBI, they contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and filed suit in Federal Court to challenge the gag order.

Librarians are just as eager to stop terrorism as everyone else, and libraries have surrendered confidential records in the past when presented with court ordered warrants and subpoenas that were obtained by providing the required evidence of criminal activity. The provision of the USA Patriot Act that authorizes the expanded use of National Security Letters and imposes a gag order is troublesome because no judicial oversight or court order is required. Federal agents do not have to prove to a court that there is evidence of criminal activity. They can conduct fishing expeditions into citizens’ private lives without cause and for no other reason than that they might get lucky and find something all the while requiring that their investigation be kept secret. It is not only librarians and the ACLU who find this unacceptable. Many states, cities and towns across the country, including Lyme, have passed resolutions opposing any provisions of the Patriot Act or Homeland Security Act that violate citizens’ civil rights. Included in the Resolution passed at the Lyme Annual Town meeting on May 27, 2005 are concerns about “expansion of authority to conduct unregulated electronic surveillance of lawful activities” and “expanded information gathering about persons without any demonstrated evidence of criminal behavior and without court order.” It also states that “the privacy rights and intellectual freedoms of its residents are affirmed and librarians, booksellers and other communications dealers are supported in protecting those rights.”

The Connecticut Four and the ACLU were successful in having the gag order overturned in Federal Court although not in time to allow them to speak publicly on the reauthorization of portions of the Patriot Act. Last week, the FBI rescinded its demand for the confidential records from Library Connections, Inc. Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s most revered founding fathers once wrote: “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” The Connecticut Four were not willing to sacrifice that liberty for themselves or for the rest of us, and for that they have my admiration, respect and gratitude.