San Francisco - A federal judge has unsealed her ruling that National Security Letter (NSL) provisions in federal law—as amended by the USA FREEDOM Act—don’t violate the Constitution. The ruling allows the FBI to continue to issue the letters with accompanying gag orders that silence anyone from disclosing they have received an NSL, often for years. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) represents two service providers in challenging the NSL statutes, who will appeal this decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
“Our heroic clients want to talk about the NSLs they received from the government, but they’ve been gagged—one of them since 2011,” said EFF Deputy Executive Director Kurt Opsahl. “This government silencing means the service providers cannot issue open and honest transparency reports and can’t share their experiences as part of the ongoing public debate over NSLs and their potential for abuse. Despite this setback, we will take this fight to the appeals court, again, to combat USA FREEDOM’s unconstitutional NSL provisions.”
This long-running battle started in 2011, after one of EFF’s clients challenged an NSL and the gag order it received. In 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston issued a groundbreaking decision, ruling that the NSL power was unconstitutional. However, the government appealed, and the Ninth Circuit found that changes made by the USA FREEDOM Act passed by Congress last year required a new review by the District Court.
In the decision unsealed this week, the District Court found that the USA FREEDOM Act sufficiently addressed the facial constitutional problems with the NSL law. However, she also ruled that the FBI had failed to provide a sufficient justification for one of our client’s challenges to the NSLs. After reviewing the government’s justification, the court found no “reasonable likelihood that disclosure … would result in danger to the national security of the United States,” or other asserted dangers, and prohibited the government from enforcing that gag. However, the client still cannot identify itself because the court stayed this portion of the decision pending appeal.
“We are extremely disappointed that the superficial changes in the NSL statutes were determined to be good enough to meet the requirements of the First Amendment,” said EFF Staff Attorney Andrew Crocker. “NSL recipients still can be gagged at the FBI’s say-so, without any procedural protections, time limits or judicial oversight. This is a prior restraint on free speech, and it’s unconstitutional.”
The NSL statutes have been highly controversial since their use was expanded under the USA PATRIOT Act. With an NSL, the FBI—on its own, without any judge’s approval—can issue a secret letter to communications service providers, requiring the service to turn over subscriber and other basic non-content information about their customers. The gag orders that the FBI routinely issues along with an NSL have hampered discussion and debate about the process.
For the full unsealed order:
For more on National Security Letters: