Blog of Rights

ACLU Sues NYPD Over Unconstitutional Muslim Surveillance Program

By Hina Shamsi, Director, ACLU National Security Project & Patrick C. Toomey, Staff Attorney, ACLU National Security Project at 10:14am

The ACLU, together with the NYCLU and CUNY's CLEAR Project, filed a lawsuit today challenging the New York Police Department's unconstitutional policy and practice of targeting entire Muslim communities for discriminatory and suspicionless surveillance. The NYPD's vast religious profiling program has cast an unjustified badge of suspicion and stigma on hundreds of thousands of innocent New Yorkers, based on nothing more than their religious faith and practice. We represent civic and religious leaders, two mosques, and a charitable organization, all of whom were swept up in the police department's dragnet surveillance because they are Muslim.

As documented extensively in the NYPD's own records and in Pulitzer prize-winning reporting by the Associated Press, NYPD officers and informants have routinely monitored mosques and businesses frequented by Muslims, including restaurants and bookstores. The department has also sent paid infiltrators into mosques, Muslim student associations, and beyond to take photos, write down license plate numbers, and keep notes on people simply because they are Muslim. Video surveillance cameras have been mounted outside mosques, recording every person who goes to worship. Maps created and maintained by the NYPD show the location of scores of mosques and Muslim businesses across New York's five boroughs. A senior NYPD representative has admitted that these mapping activities have not generated a single lead or resulted in even one terrorism investigation.

The NYPD's discriminatory surveillance is based on a false and unconstitutional premise: that Muslim religious belief and practices are a basis for law enforcement scrutiny. That is a premise rooted in bias and ignorance, not good law enforcement or fact. It is a premise that is both demonstrably wrong—terrorism is not a "Muslim phenomemon"—and deeply unfair to the millions of American Muslims who are a law-abiding, diverse, and integral part of our nation and New York City. The NYPD's surveillance program would be unthinkable if it targeted churches or synagogues, Christian reading rooms or Jewish community centers. The fact that it maps and sends informants into mosques and Muslim-owned businesses is no different. Like all Americans, our Muslim communities are entitled to protection from discriminatory religious profiling and intrusive police surveillance.

The NYPD's religious profiling has profoundly harmed New York's Muslim community. Long before the AP confirmed the vast scope of this program, knowledge and fear of unjustified surveillance permeated the community. Our clients' stories show how deep the damage has been. The NYPD's monitoring of mosques has forced religious leaders to censor what they say to their congregants, for fear that their statements could be taken out of context by police officers or informants, resulting in further unjustified scrutiny, or worse. Some religious leaders have felt the need to regularly record their sermons to defend themselves against potential mischaracterizations. Disruptions resulting from NYPD surveillance have also diverted precious time and resources away from religious education and counseling, both of which are part of mosques' core religious mission. And fear of NYPD surveillance has diminished congregants' attendance at mosques, prompted distrust of newcomers out of concern that they are NYPD informants, and prevented the mosques from fulfilling their mission of serving as religious sanctuaries.

The same fear of NYPD surveillance has also diminished the ability of charities—like one of our clients, Muslims Giving Back—to raise funds to support their efforts. Muslims Giving Back and one of its leaders, our client Asad Dandia, discovered in October 2012 that the group had been infiltrated for months by a paid NYPD informant posing as a friend and enthusiastic participant in the organization's religious mission. Since then, mosques have been reluctant to host or support Muslims Giving Back, for fear of other NYPD informants. This type of chronic mistrust cripples the ability of organizations like Muslims Giving Back to solicit the donations from congregants that sustain their charitable activities. Baseless law enforcement scrutiny has interfered with Muslims Giving Back and Asad's mission of promoting and providing charity to needy New Yorkers in accordance with one of Islam's primary tenets.

Read more about our clients here.

This discriminatory profiling and the harms it has caused our clients violate the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, and the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion and guarantee of government neutrality toward religion. Our suit asks the court to end the NYPD's Muslim surveillance program and to prevent future surveillance based solely or predominantly on religion in the absence of individualized suspicion of criminal activity. It also seeks to expunge the records of all of our clients created because of the program, and to appoint a monitor to ensure that New York City truly ends all of the unconstitutional practices inherent in its religious surveillance efforts. We hope the court recognizes that suspicionless and discriminatory surveillance based on nothing more than religious identity has no place in New York, or anywhere else.

Learn more about the NYPD surveillance program and other civil liberties issues: Sign up for breaking news alertsfollow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Statistics image