A president of a New York Internet Service Provider (ISP) who stood up against the Patriot Act and refused to violate the privacy of his clients has won a top civil liberties award, but the recipient cannot be named because of FBI gag orders.
The American Civil Liberties Union will today present the Roger Baldwin Medal of Liberty awards to “John Doe” and four Connecticut librarians in recognition of their courage to uphold the civil liberties of others.
Representatives of Library Connection in Connecticut – Barbara Bailey, Peter Chase, George Christian and Janet Nocek – and a “John Doe” ISP received National Security Letters (NSLs) from the FBI but were gagged from revealing that the FBI had sought information from them.
Instead of complying with the broad requests, which were issued without any judicial oversight, the librarians and John Doe joined the ACLU in separate legal challenges. The FBI has since dropped its gag order on the librarians, but continues to prevent the New York “John Doe” from speaking publicly.
“The ACLU’s progress in fighting back against the Patriot Act and other repressive policies since 9/11 has been fueled and inspired by the individual acts of courage of ordinary Americans,” said ACLU President Nadine Strossen. “We are proud to honor these brave individuals who stood up at a critical moment in history and truly made a difference.”
The news of the award came just a judge ordered the FBI today to release agency records about its alleged abuse of National Security Letters (NSLs) to snoop on Americans’ personal information, just a day after the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) urged the judge to immediately respond in its lawsuit over agency foot dragging.
NSLs are used to compel libraries, universities, Internet providers and other organizations to disclose sensitive information about their customers and patrons, without a court order.
FBI uses them to monitor which web sites an individual has visited, which books she has borrowed from the library, what her credit score is and to whom she’s been sending e-mails. Businesses and organizations that are served with NSLs are prohibited by law from telling anyone else that the FBI demanded information from them.
The Patriot Act removed the restriction on the FBI which limited the agency’s right toobtain information using a national security letter only if it had “specific and articulable facts giving reason to believe that the customer or entity whose records are sought [was] a foreign power or agent of a foreign power.”
The Patriot Act significantly broadened the FBI’s authority to use NSLs by both lowering the threshold standard for issuing them and by expanding the number of FBI officials who could sign the letters.
March 2007 report by the Justice Department’s own Inspector General found that after the Patriot Act, the number of NSL requests issued by the FBI increased to approximately 39,000 in 2003, approximately 56,000 in 2004, and approximately 47,000 in 2005. In total, during the 3-year period covered by our review, the FBI issued more than 143,000 NSL requests.
The New York case concerns an anonymous ISP that challenged the NSL statute after the FBI relied on the statute to demand some of its records.
In Landmark ruling, district Court Judge Victor Marrero struck down the statute in September 2004, saying that “democracy abhors undue secrecy.” and held that the unlimited gag imposed by the NSL law violates free speech rights protected by the First Amendment.
The appeals court ruled in May 2006, that the district court should consider the constitutionality of the provision in light of recent amendments made by Congress
“These five individuals are all humble, everyday men and women who did something truly extraordinary,” said Jameel Jaffer, Director of the ACLU National Security Project. “For a long time after the September 2001 attacks, the administration was able to scare many of its critics into silence. Attorney General Ashcroft even suggested that those who disagreed with the administration’s policies were aiding the enemy. So those who spoke out – especially those who spoke out despite an FBI gag order prohibiting them from doing so – displayed real courage.”
Previous recipients of the Roger N. Baldwin Medal of Liberty awards include Gordon Hirabayashi and the late Fred Korematsu, who fought against the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; journalist Anthony Lewis; Dolores Huerta, a champion of the rights of women, workers and immigrants; and the five Judge Advocate General (JAG) lawyers who represented the first round of defendants at Guantanamo Bay and challenged the flawed military commission process.