A coalition of 19 organizations s formed to file a lawsuit Tuesday (PDF) against the National Security Administration, alleging that the government is supporting “an illegal and unconstitutional program of dragnet electronic surveillance.”
The coalition is made up of an interestingly broad array of organizations, led by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and including the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, California Association of Federal Firearms Licensees, Council on Islamic Relations, and National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
The suit argues that the NSA’s phone tracking system violates First Amendment freedom of speech and Fourth Amendment freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. They are also challenging the PATRIOT Act, specifically Article 215, which allows the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to authorize broad warrants for most any type of records, including those held by banks, doctors, and phone companies.
"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," Cindy Cohn, the legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in a statement. "But fear of individual exposure when participating in political debates over high-stakes issues can dissuade people from taking part."
In order to bring a suit challenging the constitutionality of a law to court, the plaintiff must prove that he will be harmed by the law. While it is unlikely that this group can prove that they will be directly harmed by NSA surveillance, they can still claim standing by arguing that the law can cause harm to others who may not be able to petition the court.
Is this lawsuit likely to win? No.
Is it still important? Definitely.
By appearing in court, the government’s defense is likely going to have to release the details of its data-gathering programs that it has been working hard to conceal. Previously classified materials will become a part of public record, making this case worthwhile, no matter the outcome.
The lawsuit is aimed at the Supreme Court, where the coalition would like to challenge the 1979 ruling that found no expectation of privacy when sharing information with a third party on which Article 215 is based. It could continue to build on the doubts expressed in 2012 about the ruling’s relevance in the face of 21st century technological developments.
Officials have defended the NSA’s collection of records, stating that it is vital to protecting Americans from terrorist activity. The collection of the data was also authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a ruling which makes their actions legal, officials state.
Cohn stated that the groups who joined the coalition were motivated by a fear that they could be targeted because of their members’ affiliations. In a press statement Tuesday, the leader of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee said that several government contractors told him they were afraid of marching in one of the committee’s rallies for fear that they could lose their jobs.
"These groups don't agree on very much, but they all agree on the right to associate freely," Cohn said.