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A U.S. District Court struck down a key provision of the Patriot Act as unconstitutional Thursday, marking the second time that a provision which allows anti-terrorism investigators to write their own subpoenas for phone and internet records and require the recipients to never speak of them violated the First Amendment.  The ruling (.pdf) strikes yet another blow at the FBI's use of National Security Letters, which were used to issue 143,074 requests for phone and internet records from 2003 to 2005, and as a recent Inspector General report showed, the widespread use led to abuses and sloppiness. Early this year, a damning report by the Justice Department's Inspector General found that the FBI used NSLs in violation of applicable NSL statutes, Attorney General guidelines and internal FBI policies. The FBI, along with the Inspector General, are now criminally investigating an office that sent more than 700 emergency letters, with false statements in them, to phone companies.

The ACLU sued on behalf of an anonymous internet service provider, which was served an NSL about one of the websites it hosted.  The ISP contested the order, which the FBI subsequently dropped, but the ISP remains unable to even acknowledge that it got a request, and the company's president said he's been forced to lie to his friends and girlfriend about it.

Judge Victor Marrero of the Southern District of New York ruled that the gag order and the strict rules about how to contest them amounted to prior restraint on speech and allowed the FBI to pick and choose which persons would be gagged, based on whether the feds believed the target might speak critically of the government.  Judge Marrero found, in a 106 page opinion, that the gag order provisions couldn't be struck down without affecting the rest of the statute so he found that the entire NSL provision was unconstitutional.  He also stuck down a provision that prescribed the standards courts should use in judging the FBI's arguments for keeping gag orders.  Marrero wrote that Congress had overstepped its bounds in setting out those standards.


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