February 17, 2018

Four “John Does” Finally Speak, Proud but Frustrated

By LJ Staff

Yesterday, "John Doe" – or rather, four "John Does" – finally spoke, ending a legal charade in which the identity of their library consortium had been inadvertently made public in a high-profile court case but they were prevented from discussing the case or influencing the Congressional debate on the reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act. Four librarians from suburban and small-town Connecticut – dignified, conservatively-dressed 50somethings gagged for nearly ten months under the Patriot Act – appeared at a press conference at the headquarters of their legal representative, the American Civil Liberties Union. "These people look very scary," quipped Leslie Burger, president-elect of the American Library Association. George Christian, executive director of the Windsor-based Library Connection, declared, "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." He said he felt the gag order to be very compromising, since he discussed it only with the three-member executive committee of the board of directors but could not reveal it to the rest of the board or the members without risking prosecution. Because of mistakes by government lawyers, the name of the consortium was released in court papers in November, but that didn’t make things easier. "The circumstances were always the unspoken elephant in the room," he said.

Christian was joined by the executive committee members. Barbara Bailey, director of the Welles-Turner Memorial Library, Glastonbury, noted that, because of the gag, the executive committee members could not even anonymously attend the federal court hearing in the case, held in Bridgeport; rather, they were permitted to watch via closed circuit television in Hartford, in a locked room with a security officer. "We were plaintiffs, but we were treated like criminals," she said. Peter Chase, director of the Plainville Public Library, said he deeply regretted not being able to join the debate about the reauthorization; as chair of the Connecticut Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, he had to turn down speaking engagements, fearing that he would reveal he knew something about the case. Asked what he would’ve told Congress, he spoke passionately: "They were saying that no one’s rights had been affected, but they had gagged me. I’d like to know why they claimed library records don’t have any special protections under the law, when 48 states have them." The plaintiffs were permitted to speak publicly after lawyers representing the government withdrew an appeal to keep their identities hidden after a federal judge declared the perpetual gag order that accompanies National Security Letters unconstitutional. The underlying case continues. Burger addressed the plaintiffs: "I’m proud of your courageous stand and grateful to count you among our professional colleagues." "John Doe" won the 2005 Downs Intellectual Freedom Award, presented at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in San Antonio, but no one from the Library Connection could be present to accept the award.