Gun owners, pot smokers, church goers, techies and Islamists have found something they can all agree on: they don’t like being spied on by the National Security Agency (NSA).
This week, the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles and 18 co-plaintiffs from the left and right of American politics joined in a lawsuit (pdf) against the NSA over its hoovering up of everyone’s telephone records for permanent storage in enormous databases.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, differs from other legal action taken over the agency’s secret collection of citizens’ communication records, recently cast in the spotlight by revelations from one-time government contractor Edward Snowden. The young, soon-to-be-ex-patriot, is seeking asylum in Russia after giving detailed files of NSA activities to journalists.
Rather than focus on the loss of constitutionally guaranteed privacy, the lawsuit argues that the spying violates the First Amendment “right to communicate anonymously, the right to associate privately, and the right to engage in political advocacy free from government interference.”
“We joined this lawsuit to stop the illegal surveillance of our members and the people we serve,” the Rev. Rick Hoyt of the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles said. “This spying makes people afraid to belong to our church community.”
After leaks from Snowden that detailed the spying were flashed around the world, the NSA admitted what many people already suspected—the agency was collecting so-called metadata from telephone calls of Americans that included time, duration, phone numbers and location. The government denied accessing actual phone conversations without court approval.
Cindy Cohen, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed the suit, said, “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.”
Plaintiffs in the suit include Calguns, the Council on American Islamic Relations—California, Greenpeace Inc., Franklin Armory, California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Open Technology Institute, Media Alliance and Human Rights Watch.