Advocacy Groups Seek Injunction to Compel Justice Dept. to Respond to Questions Regarding USA Patriot Act

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On November 13, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) and three other free expression groups filed a preliminary injunction asking that a federal court order the Department of Justice (DOJ) to respond immediately to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by the groups on October 24. The free expression groups are seeking information on how the government is using the widespread surveillance powers it has been granted under the USA Patriot Act (for a related article, click here.)

The injunction was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by ABFFE, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and the American Library Association's Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF). The groups filed the lawsuit after the DOJ failed to respond to an initial FOIA request, made in August 2002.

"There is widespread public concern about the scope of the new surveillance powers and the possibility that the government is abusing them," Jameel Jaffer, an attorney with the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program, said in a statement. "The records we have identified would enable the public to judge for itself whether these new surveillance powers are necessary and whether they are being used as they should be."

The plaintiffs first filed an FOIA request on August 21 seeking general information about the use of new surveillance powers. For instance, the groups want to know how many subpoenas have been issued to bookstores, libraries, and newspapers under the Act. ABFFE, ACLU, EPIC, and FTRF had asked for an expedited processing of their FOIA request, which the DOJ granted without indicating whether it intended to disclose the requested information. After the plaintiffs waited more than a month for a response, a lawsuit was filed on October 24.

Following the lawsuit filing, the groups spent more than two weeks negotiating with DOJ lawyers in an effort to secure the government's cooperation with the FOIA request. The talks proved unsuccessful, Jaffer told BTW. "[The DOJ] didn't release any documents in response to the request," he explained.

ABFFE president Chris Finan noted, "We felt we weren't getting anywhere in our negotiation with the Department of Justice, therefore we are asking the court to speed the process of getting the documents."

In the injunction, the plaintiffs contend that the USA Patriot Act, which was passed in the wake of September 11, has "serious implications for constitutionally protected rights, and accordingly there has been increasing public concern about the scope of the [Patriot Act] and the government's implementation of it…. Although more than two months have now passed since Plaintiffs filed their FOIA request, [DOJ] has not disclosed any record in response to Plaintiffs' request…. [DOJ]'s continuing failure to act upon Plaintiffs' FOIA request clearly violates the statue and should be enjoined."

The plaintiffs are asking Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle to order DOJ to disclose within seven days what relevant information it possesses and release those records within 20 days. It is possible a court hearing could take place within two weeks. --David Grogan