Whether you’re a member of the ACLU, the Tea Party, or the Beer Lovers Party, one of the things that distinguishes you from people living in more authoritarian regimes — Iran, China, Libya, to name a few — is your right to form political associations without fear of government reprisal.
Freedom of association is so vital to our democracy that the framers put it in the First Amendment, alongside freedoms of speech, press, religion, and petition. After all, what good is the right to speak, pray, or petition the government if you can’t freely associate with other people who support your cause?
Defending that right for all Americans is why the ACLU today is filing a lawsuit in federal court in Boston on behalf of a 24-year-old computer programmer and Cambridge activist named David House. The case challenges the government’s targeting and suspicionless search and seizure at the border of David’s computer and camera, which occurred as a result of his association with the Bradley Manning Support Network.
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The Bradley Manning Support Network, which David helped to create, is a group of people and organizations who advocate for the legal defense of Pfc. Bradley Manning — the soldier who was charged and subsequently held in solitary confinement for allegedly accessing and disclosing a video and documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the website WikiLeaks.
Although the Support Network engages solely in lawful and constitutionally protected advocacy, members of the group have apparently been targeted by the Feds for exercising the right to free association. David has been visited by agents from the FBI, Department of State, and the military — who repeatedly question him about his political beliefs and associations. Then, last November, when David arrived at the Chicago airport from a vacation in Mexico en route to Boston, he was again stopped — this time by two Homeland Security agents — who not only questioned him again about his political beliefs, but seized his laptop, flash drive, and video camera — all without David’s consent and without any reason to believe a search would turn up evidence of wrongdoing.
What kind of information was on David’s laptop? There were email messages to and from family members and friends, messages concerning David’s employment, records of his personal finances, his computer programming work, and passwords to his bank account and other secure websites. There also was information about the Support Network, including mailing lists, confidential strategy memos, and lists of donors and potential donors.
Simply put: the government seized information about David’s lawful associations without reasonable suspicion. That’s when the ACLU stepped up in defense of both David and the Constitution.
Initially, the ACLU sent a letter to government agencies demanding the return of David’s equipment and requesting that any copies of David’s personal information be deleted.Immediately after the ACLU sent the letter, the government shipped David’s hardware back to him. Of course, by then, seven weeks had transpired — plenty of time for the folks at Homeland Security to make and disseminate copies of David’s personal information. They did not address David’s request that the government delete all copies of his data and clarify whether Homeland Security had shared his data with other agencies.
Today, David and the ACLU are filing a lawsuit in Federal Court challenging the government’s assertion that it can seize, search, copy and disseminate information seized from a personal computer or other electronic devices without a reasonable basis for suspicion. The lawsuit asks that the court “Declare that the prolonged seizure of [David’s] laptop computer and other electronic devices and the review, copying, retention and dissemination of their contents without reasonable suspicion violates the Fourth and First Amendments to the United States Constitution.”
The case is important not only for David and others in the Support Network, but for all Americans who care about democracy. After all, the Support Network is just the latest in a long and noble American tradition of creating lawful “legal defense committees” to ensure the due process rights of all Americans — check out the Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society if you don’t believe me.
The lawsuit also challenges the notion that the government has unbridled power to search the personal effects and papers at the border of individuals and groups who are engaged in legal and protected political activity — simply because the government doesn’t like one cause or another. The landmark Supreme Court ruling on point arose at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1958. The case, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) v. Alabama, involved an effort by officials from Alabama to force the disclosure of the membership list of the NAACP in an effort to run them out of the state. The Supreme Court ruled, 9-0, that such intimidation tactics are unconstitutional on the grounds of freedom of association and due process.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that the government was wrong to use intimidation tactics like seizing the membership lists of the NAACP to intimidate political activists in the civil rights movement. The political landscape and technology have changed dramatically since 1958. But defending freedom of association remains as important to defending 21st century democracy as ever.