San Francisco - Five new groups—including civil-rights lawyers, medical-privacy advocates and Jewish social-justice activists—have joined a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) against the National Security Agency (NSA) over the unconstitutional collection of bulk telephone call records. With today's amended complaint, EFF now represents 22 entities in alleging that government surveillance under Section 215 of the Patriot Act violates Americans' First Amendment right to freedom of association.
The five entities joining the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA lawsuit before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California are: Acorn Active Media, the Charity and Security Network, the National Lawyers Guild, Patient Privacy Rights and The Shalom Center. They join an already diverse coalition of groups representing interests including gun rights, environmentalism, drug-policy reform, human rights, open-source technology, media reform and religious freedom.
"The First Amendment guarantees the freedom to associate and express political views as a group," EFF legal director Cindy Cohn said. "The NSA undermines that right when it collects, without any particular target, the phone records of innocent Americans and the organizations in which they participate. In order to advocate effectively, these organizations must have the ability to protect the privacy of their employees and members."
In June, The Guardian newspaper published a secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) that authorized the wholesale collection of phone records of all Verizon customers, including the numbers involved in each call, the time and duration of the call, and "other identifying information." Government officials subsequently confirmed the document's authenticity and acknowledged the order was just one of a series issued on a rolling basis since at least 2006.
EFF originally filed the lawsuit on June 16, arguing the tracking program allows the government to compile detailed connections between people and organizations that have no correlation to national security investigations. Along with adding the new plaintiffs, the amended complaint also adds new information about "contact chaining" searches through the vast trove of phone records, adds James B. Comey as a defendant now that he is the head of the FBI, and makes some additional changes.
For Rabbi Arthur Waskow of The Shalom Center, the revelations come with a sense of déjà vu.
"Jewish tradition for at least the last 2,000 years has celebrated the right of privacy of the people against surveillance by a ruler," Waskow said. "A generation ago, I joined with other antiwar activists to successfully sue the FBI over its 'COINTELPRO' program, which violated our right to assemble in opposition to the Vietnam War. Now, as director of The Shalom Center—a religious organization advocating for peace, social justice and environmental sustainablility—I am concerned that the NSA has greatly surpassed the FBI in undermining our Constitutional rights."
The National Lawyers Guild, a public-interest legal association that has defended civil rights for more than 75 years, notes that surveillance has substantially impeded its ability to communicate with those seeking legal assistance.
"Applied on a massive scale, government surveillance becomes a form of oppression," the Guild's Executive Director Heidi Boghosian said. "Knowing that we are likely monitored, we have curbed our electronic interactions. Sensitive discussions about cases are confined to in-person meetings and letters. We have no illusions that our hotline for individuals visited by the FBI is private; we don't even ask for specific details for fear of government eavesdropping."
EFF also represents the plaintiffs in Jewel v. NSA, a class-action case filed on behalf of individuals in 2008 aimed at ending the NSA's dragnet surveillance of millions of ordinary Americans. The Jewel case is set for a conference with the Court on September 27 in San Francisco.
For the amended complaint:
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Rabbi Arthur Waskow
The Shalom Center