The First Amendment is too often overlooked in discussions of the National Security Agency’s vast surveillance authorities. But as Congress considers whether to reauthorize Section 702 of FISA this winter, we must remember that it’s not just our Fourth Amendment rights to privacy that are in the crosshairs, but also our First Amendment rights. These rights to anonymously speak, associate, access information, and engage in political activism are the bedrock of our democracy, and they’re endangered by the NSA’s pervasive surveillance.
The NSA uses Section 702 to justify ongoing programs to siphon off copies of vast amounts of our communications directly from the Internet backbone as well as require system-wide searches across the information collected by major Internet companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple.
So how does the First Amendment come to apply to mass surveillance? To understand this, we need to begin with a little history of the civil rights movement.
As part of the backlash to the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down segregation in schools, the Attorney General of Alabama, John Patterson, brought a lawsuit against a leading civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The lawsuit alleged that the NAACP violated a state law requiring “foreign corporations” to file certain paperwork and get approval before practicing business in Alabama. The NAACP is a nonprofit membership organization; it didn’t file the paperwork because it believed it was exempt. While the NAACP fought the suit, the state issued a subpoena demanding detailed records from the NAACP, including membership lists and bank records. The NAACP refused to surrender its membership lists, fearing retaliatory consequences for its members. Because of this refusal, the court fined the NAACP $10,000, which after five days was raised to $100,000. The NAACP continued to fight the order for two years until the Supreme Court took up the issue, never surrendering its membership lists.
Ultimately the NAACP was vindicated. The Supreme Court recognized that the First Amendment protected the associational privacy interests of NAACP members. It directly recognized that freely associating for advocacy or other purposes is a fundamental right. It noted that state invasions of privacy could infringe on that right: “It is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the "liberty" assured by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which embraces freedom of speech… Of course, it is immaterial whether the beliefs sought to be advanced by association pertain to political, economic, religious or cultural matters, and state action which may have the effect of curtailing the freedom to associate is subject to the closest scrutiny.”
The Supreme Court found that the “Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.”
In short, we all have the right to engage in associate with one another and to join and communicate with political and religious groups free from government surveillance.
As our society has moved online, our associations have become digital in nature. Signing up for a membership or learning about an advocacy group often happens over a website or app. Members of modern political groups coordinate donations, activities, and information over social networks, email, and websites. When the NSA—either by itself or by working with corporate “partners”—collects the digital communications and browsing history of countless individuals, it’s also obtaining records of innocent Americans visiting activism websites, becoming members of advocacy groups, and coordinating social movements. EFF also raised this argument in our case against the mass telephone records collection by the NSA (substantially narrowed in 2015) First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v NSA.
The surveillance of our communications systems, and thereby the surveillance of our communications, infringes on the very rights of private association upheld by the Supreme Court in 1958.
So while the Fourth Amendment concerns about 702 and mass surveillance are important, they are not the only problem created by the law. And as Alex Abdo, an attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, argues that when it comes to confronting government surveillance, we shouldn’t expect the Fourth Amendment alone to protect our First Amendment interests. He recently wrote that “The Fourth Amendment, unlike the First, is blind to the cumulative effects of invasions of privacy that are small in isolation but substantial in combination.”
Those cumulative effects are especially felt when it comes to the right to publish and access information freely. While the government may be forbidden from censoring online speakers and readers, the cumulative impact of pervasive digital surveillance has a chilling effect on online communities. The specter of government surveillance quells engagement in online forums, social networks, and blogs that discuss controversial, political, or unpopular positions. Knowing that the government is keeping a digital dossier of comments we leave online and articles we digitally share creates an environment in which speakers hesitate to engage in online political advocacy.
Readers also hesitate to visit websites that may be seen as out of favor with the government, whether that’s Al Jazeera or CNN or EFF’s own site, knowing that their visit may be recorded in a government database for years to come.
The NSA’s digital surveillance of countless law-abiding Americans also indirectly affects another key First Amendment right: our right to assembly. Today’s modern protest movements are often organized and fueled by social media and digital communication, where activists coordinate across a wide range of physical locations. The NSA’s pervasive digital surveillance challenges our values as a society that respects and safeguards the right to plan and participate in protests and other political activity, rights which are themselves baked into the First Amendment.
The pervasive digital surveillance programs of the NSA chip away at the First Amendment protections that underpin our democracy. As Congress considers whether to reauthorize or reform Section 702 surveillance in the coming weeks, we urge them to remember that their choice will not just impact the privacy of Americans, it will have a profound impact on freedom of speech, association, and assembly protected by the First Amendment and ultimately, upon our democracy itself.
Contact Congress today to speak out against NSA surveillance.