Four Connecticut Librarians Shed John Doe Gag

Posted Friday, June 2, 2006 - 16:55

“I am relieved that a federal court has at long last lifted a Patriot Act gag order and allowed me to acknowledge that I am the recipient of a National Security Letter [NSL] on behalf of my organization, Library Connection,” asserted Executive Director George Christian at a May 30 press conference at the New York City headquarters of the American Civil Liberties Union. The statement ended months of speculation that the Library Connection—a nonprofit consortium of 27 public and academic libraries in central Connecticut—is the John Doe plaintiff in Doe v. Gonzales. Christian was joined by fellow “Doe” plaintiffs Barbara Bailey, Library Connection board president and director of the Welles-Turner Memorial Library in Glastonbury; Vice-president Peter Chase, director of the Plainville Public Library; and Secretary Janet Nocek, Portland Library director.

“Until this point, I never thought about what it would be like to have the right to speak freely taken away,” said Nocek, noting that the gag order meant “we were even taking a risk by consulting with lawyers.” According to the plaintiffs’ original complaint, which is available in redacted form on the ACLU website, the FBI agent assigned to serving the NSL instructed a Library Connection official to have his attorney call the agent when the librarian indicated a desire to consult a lawyer.

Chase told of his frustration at receiving the NSL even as “the government was telling Congress that it didn’t use the Patriot Act against libraries and that no one’s rights had been violated. I felt that I just could not be part of this fraud being foisted on our nation. We had to defend our patrons and ourselves, and so, represented by the ACLU, we filed a lawsuit challenging the government’s power to demand these records without a court order.”

“Because of the gag,” Bailey said, “the government would not even allow us to attend the hearing in our case anonymously.” Instead, the four “Does” watched the Bridgeport court proceedings in August 2005 on closed-circuit television in the Hartford federal building. Ultimately, she added, “Due to some sloppy redacting on the government’s part, our identity was eventually revealed to those who took the time to plow through the court briefs.”

The result proved even more awkward: The Justice Department remained adamant that the gag order was still in effect for national security reasons—a position DOJ attorneys maintained until after President Bush signed into law the reauthorized Patriot Act, which eases some of the original restrictions. In the meantime, Bailey had declined to accept the Connecticut Library Association’s intellectual freedom award on behalf of John Doe, and Chase, who chairs CLA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, turned down numerous invitations to speak about the Patriot Act lest he “inadvertently reveal that I was a John Doe.” In one case, Chase refused to debate federal attorney Kevin O’Connor, whom Chase described as “traveling around the state telling people that their library records were safe, while at the same time he was enforcing a gag order preventing me from telling people that their library records were not safe.”

The press conference, which was held four days after a federal appeals court declared the gag order moot, may be the first of many public appearances for the four. The board’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of using an NSL to obtain library records has yet to be heard. “We are in the process of discussing how to proceed from here with our attorneys at the ACLU,” Christian told American Libraries, explaining that the group could not address any specifics because “we have only been ungagged to the extent that we can claim we received the NSL.”