Community Organizations and Publishers Sue FBI and Other Agencies Over Illegal Computer Searches
San Francisco - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the ACLU of Northern California filed suit in federal court today to protect the privacy and free speech rights of two San Francisco Bay Area community organizations after the groups' computers were seized and the data copied by federal and local law enforcement. Both organizations, Long Haul and the East Bay Prisoner Support Group (EBPS), are publishers of information for social and political activists.
"We think the police should have treated us with the same respect due to any library whose public-access computers they suspected had been used for improper activity," said Jesse Palmer, a long-time participant in Long Haul operations. "Instead of asking for our assistance, they used their investigation as an excuse to break into Long Haul, search through our records, and seize our computers."
Long Haul is an all-volunteer collective that publishes a newspaper called Slingshot and provides community space, computer access, and a lending library of radical books to members of the public at its Infoshop in Berkeley, California. EBPS publishes a newsletter of prisoners' writings, distributes literature to prisoners, and occupies an office at Long Haul.
On August 27, 2008, University of California Police, the Alameda County Sheriff's Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raided Long Haul's space in Berkeley, searching public and private rooms and cutting or unscrewing locks that protected private offices. The officers removed every computer in the building -- including those behind the locked doors of the Slingshot and EBPS offices -- even though the federal Privacy Protection Act specifically protects publishers from search and seizure except in the most narrow of circumstances.
"The Slingshot and EBPS computers were clearly marked and kept behind locked doors," said EFF Civil Liberties Director Jennifer Granick. "Yet the raid officers broke into the offices to take information these organizations collected and relied on to publish information to their readership. This is a blatant violation of federal law and the First and Fourth Amendments, interfering with the freedom of the press."
The search was not based on any allegations of wrongdoing on the part of Long Haul, EBPS or their members, and there have been no arrests. The seized computers were eventually returned, but investigators likely copied the data and continued their illegal search of the information.
"As long as the government keeps the copies they made of these hard drives, they are continuing to violate the privacy of everyone who wrote or stored a document on the computers." said Michael Risher, staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. "We filed this lawsuit to protect fundamental rights and to stop these illegal searches from happening in the future."
For the full complaint:
Jennifer Stisa Granick
Civil Liberties Director
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Media Relations Director
ACLU of Northern California