An FBI demand for library records in Connecticut is exactly the kind of unsupervised prying that is bound to scare patrons who fear government monitoring of their reading habits.
Under a 1986 law, the FBI has issued a so-called national security letter demanding that an unnamed institution turn over "subscriber information, billing information and access logs." Under terms of the sweeping law, no judge had to review that request. The law even bars the letter's recipient and its legal representative, the American Civil Liberties Union, from identifying the institution, believed to be a library in the Bridgeport area.
A hearing is scheduled Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport on the ACLU's request for an emergency order allowing it to discuss the case. That request should be granted.
The law originally permitted the FBI to demand files from people suspected of working for a foreign power, but the post-9/11 Patriot Act removed the requirement that a recipient must be a suspect - a dangerous expansion that effectively allows the FBI to use national security letters for fishing expeditions.
Last year, a federal court in New York struck down the provision as unconstitutional. The court also ruled that the law's gag order was an "unconstitutional prior restraint" on free speech. The Justice Department is appealing. The appellate court should uphold the lower court ruling.
The Connecticut case comes weeks before Congress is set to extend the Patriot Act in the face of lobbying by worried librarians. The House voted in June to require a court-approved warrant or a grand jury subpoena before the FBI could demand bookstore or library records. That sensible safeguard should become part of the final bill.
No one knows the extent of federal snooping in libraries or bookstores - in part because of the law's Orwellian gag order.
However, the American Library Association reported two months ago that various law-enforcement agencies have made more than 200 requests for library records since 2001.
Congress and the White House rightly worry about the terrorist threat and obviously must be free to pursue leads about terrorist suspects, but that crucial mission must always be balanced with the need to protect basic liberties enshrined in the Constitution.
Civil libertarians everywhere should tune in to what transpires in Bridgeport because it could become an important test case on the limits of unfettered government snooping in libraries.