For library professionals, civil rights advocates and Americans everywhere, the members of the “Connecticut Four” epitomize the word “hero.” Twelve years ago, Peter Chase, Barbara Bailey, Jan Nocek and George Christian fearlessly faced down the FBI by refusing to comply with a National Security Letter (NSL) demanding that they divulge patron borrowing and internet search records in the absence of a judicially-issued warrant. As later detailed in the New York Times, they and the ACLU then sued the FBI over the legality of such NSLs and the related gag orders that prevented them from speaking out publicly at the time. Once the government retreated, and they thus no longer faced jail time and criminal fines for doing so, they spoke out immediately and as one against these inquiry-chilling provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act.
This week, for the first time in over a decade, the Connecticut Four once again came together to oppose proposals percolating in the U.S. Senate to expand significantly the kinds of information that the FBI can compel libraries and others to produce when handed an NSL. This time proudly affixing their names to an op-ed printed in the Hartford Courant, “Librarians Stand Again Against FBI Overreach,” the Connecticut Four again answered the call of history in defense of freedom of inquiry and the civil liberties of millions of library patrons everywhere.
And they won again, at least for now. The Senate adjourned without introduction of any bill, or consideration of any legislative language, proposing expansion of the FBI’s PATRIOT Act authority.
The Connecticut Four’s principles, passion and willingness to participate in the legislative process reminds us all of something vital: the role that librarians historically have played in protecting our constitutional rights. We aggressively opposed mass surveillance under Section 215 (which consequently became known as the “library provision”) of the PATRIOT Act in 2002 and again in 2015. This week, librarians returned to oppose the latest efforts to broaden powers under NSLs.
Librarians know that freedom of inquiry, thought and speech require freedom from the fear of inadequately checked and overbroad surveillance and the self-censorship that such fear breeds. This week’s events also stand as a powerful example of the power of library advocacy—one of the three pillars of ALA’s new strategic priorities—and the power of individual librarians engaged in the legislative process to make a real and lasting difference. The battle over overbroad surveillance authorities, or for many other principles we hold dear, isn’t nearly over.
We thank the Connecticut Four, yet again, for taking a stand. Let us honor them by following their example. We too should embrace the responsibility to raise our own powerful voices when the time comes.