July 17, 2013 by Sam Rolley
A lawsuit filed against the National Security Agency by a coalition of 19 organizations illustrates how some Federal policies violate American rights, regardless of demographics, political affiliation or personal beliefs.
The group, represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, includes a variety of organizations focused on everything from human rights abuses, gun rights and Islamic relations to the Unitarian church and marijuana reform advocates.
At the heart of the case, First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA, is the NSA’s bulk telephone records collection confirmed by last month’s publication of an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).
“The First Amendment protects the freedom to associate and express political views as a group, but the NSA’s mass, untargeted collection of Americans’ phone records violates that right by giving the government a dramatically detailed picture into our associational ties,” said EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn. “Who we call, how often we call them, and how long we speak shows the government what groups we belong to or associate with, which political issues concern us, and our religious affiliation. Exposing this information — especially in a massive, untargeted way over a long period of time — violates the Constitution and the basic First Amendment tests that have been in place for over 50 years.”
Just one of a series of FISC rulings allowing similarly unConstitutional data collection by the NSA, the spy effort at the center of the lawsuit permitted the NSA’s wholesale collection of every call made, the location of the phone, the time of the call, the duration of the call and other “identifying information” for every phone and call for all customers of Verizon for a period of three months.
EFF officials argue that the NSA is working to build a database not as a deterrent to terrorist activity, but rather as a means by which to quash all manner of dissident activity.
“People who hold controversial views — whether it’s about gun ownership policies, drug legalization, or immigration — often must express views as a group in order to act and advocate effectively,” said Cohn. “But fear of individual exposure when participating in political debates over high-stakes issues can dissuade people from taking part. That’s why the Supreme Court ruled in 1958 that membership lists of groups have strong First Amendment protection. Telephone records, especially complete records collected over many years, are even more invasive than membership lists, since they show casual or repeated inquiries as well as full membership.”
Officials at the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, the main plaintiff in the case, say that the church has a long history of fighting Federal attacks on free speech and that the controversial position the church sometimes takes on issues puts its members at risk of government persecution if the spying continues.
“The First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles has a proud history of working for justice and protecting people in jeopardy for expressing their political views,” said the Rev. Rick Hoyt. “In the 1950s, we resisted the McCarthy hysteria and supported blacklisted Hollywood writers and actors, and we fought California’s ‘loyalty oaths’ all the way to the Supreme Court. And in the 1980s, we gave sanctuary to refugees from civil wars in Central America. The principles of our faith often require our church to take bold stands on controversial issues. We joined this lawsuit to stop the illegal surveillance of our members and the people we serve. Our church members and our neighbors who come to us for help should not fear that their participation in the church might have consequences for themselves or their families. This spying makes people afraid to belong to our church community.”
The strange bedfellows joining forces in the complaint make certain that the American government and the Nation’s citizens are at odds.