NEW YORK (Reuters) - A controversial Patriot Act clause allowing the U.S. government to demand information about library patrons' borrowing habits is being challenged in federal court for the first time by a library.
The lawsuit was filed against U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut by an unnamed library and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The suit -- filed on Aug. 9 and made public by the ACLU on Thursday -- calls the FBI's order to produce library records "unconstitutional on its face" and said a gag order preventing public discussion of the lawsuit is an unlawful restraint on speech.
Critical details of the lawsuit were blacked out on the ACLU's Web site in compliance with the gag order. The library is thought to be based in Connecticut since the lawsuit was filed there with the participation of the Connecticut branch of the ACLU.
The ACLU said in its lawsuit that legal changes made under the Patriot Act "remove any requirement of individualized suspicion, (and) the FBI may now ... demand sensitive information about innocent people."
Enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Patriot Act lets U.S. authorities seek approval from a special court to search personal records of terror suspects from bookstores, businesses, hospitals and libraries, in a provision known as the library clause.
The FBI letter requesting the information, called a National Security Letter, is effectively a gag order because it tells the recipient that the request must be kept secret.
As a result, "the Patriot Act is itself gagging public debate about the Patriot Act," said Ann Beeson, the ACLU's lead lawyer in the case.
The civil liberties group has asked the District Court to lift the gag order so its client can participate in the public debate and upcoming congressional hearings on the Patriot Act. A hearing about lifting the gag order is scheduled for Wednesday in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
An FBI spokesman referred calls to the Department of Justice. A Justice spokesman said the department had no comment and declined to say if it had required libraries to turn over records under the Patriot Act.
The U.S. House of Representatives, ignoring protests from civil liberties groups, voted this summer to reauthorize 16 provisions of the act that expire at the end of the year, including the library clause. The Senate is expected to take up the matter after lawmakers return from an August recess.
A copy of the ACLU lawsuit said the library involved "strictly guards the confidentiality and privacy of its library and Internet records, and believes it should not be forced to disclose such records without a showing of compelling need and approval by a judge."
The FBI, in a copy of the letter demanding the library records and attached to the lawsuit, said "the information sought is relevant to an authorized investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities."
(Additional reporting by Caroline Drees)