A large coalition of religious groups, privacy advocates, free speech, human rights and environmental organizations have joined with other groups in the Electronic Frontiers Foundation's suit against the NSA
for its dragnet surveillance programs on First Amendment grounds.
"The First Amendment protects the freedom to associate and express political views as a group, but the NSA's mass, untargeted collection of Americans' phone records violates that right by giving the government a dramatically detailed picture into our associational ties," said EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn. "Who we call, how often we call them, and how long we speak shows the government what groups we belong to or associate with, which political issues concern us, and our religious affiliation. Exposing this information—especially in a massive, untargeted way over a long period of time—violates the Constitution and the basic First Amendment tests that have been in place for over 50 years."
targets Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the agency, with broad warrants from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, to obtain a vast array of records, including those held by banks, doctors and phone companies. These broad warrants, the suit says, and the activity of the FISC and the NSA under it also violates the Fourth, and Fifth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The lead plaintiff is the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles.
"The First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles has a proud history of working for justice and protecting people in jeopardy for expressing their political views," said Rev. Rick Hoyt. "In the 1950s, we resisted the McCarthy hysteria and supported blacklisted Hollywood writers and actors, and we fought California's 'loyalty oaths' all the way to the Supreme Court. And in the 1980s, we gave sanctuary to refugees from civil wars in Central America. The principles of our faith often require our church to take bold stands on controversial issues. We joined this lawsuit to stop the illegal surveillance of our members and the people we serve. Our church members and our neighbors who come to us for help should not fear that their participation in the church might have consequences for themselves or their families. This spying makes people afraid to belong to our church community."
The revelations from Edward Snowden's leaks, and the NSA's acknowledgement of the surveillance program resulting from those leaks, could give this case a better chance than the previous challenges EFF and other groups have tried to bring against the program.