Court Rules Patriot Act's "National Security Letter" Gag Provisions Unconstitutional

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
December 15, 2008 12:00 am

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ACLU Hails Victory In Challenge To Government’s Power To Silence NSL Recipients

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NEW YORK – A federal appeals court today upheld, in part, a decision striking down provisions of the Patriot Act that prevent national security letter (NSL) recipients from speaking out about the secret records demands. The decision comes in an American Civil Liberties Union and New York Civil Liberties Union lawsuit challenging the FBI’s authority to use NSLs to demand sensitive and private customer records from Internet Service Providers and then forbid them from discussing the requests. Siding with the ACLU, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found that the statute’s gag provisions violate the First Amendment.

“We are gratified that the appeals court found that the FBI cannot silence people with complete disregard for the First Amendment simply by saying the words ‘national security,'” said Melissa Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. “This is a major victory for the rule of law. The court recognized the need for judicial oversight of the government’s dangerous gag power and rejected the Bush administration’s position that the courts should just rubber-stamp these gag orders. By upholding the critical check of judicial review, the FBI can no longer use this incredible power to hide abuse of its intrusive Patriot Act surveillance powers and silence critics.”

The appeals court invalidated parts of the statute that wrongly placed the burden on NSL recipients to initiate judicial review of gag orders, holding that the government has the burden to go to court and justify silencing NSL recipients. The appeals court also invalidated parts of the statute that narrowly limited judicial review of the gag orders – provisions that required the courts to treat the government’s claims about the need for secrecy as conclusive and required the courts to defer entirely to the executive branch.

“The appellate panel correctly observed that the imposition of such a conclusive presumption ignored well-settled First Amendment standards and deprived the judiciary of its important function as a protector of fundamental rights,” said Arthur Eisenberg, Legal Director for the New York Civil Liberties Union.

In this regard, the opinion stated: “The fiat of a governmental official, though senior in rank and doubtless honorable in the execution of official duties, cannot displace the judicial obligation to enforce constitutional requirements.”

The court, therefore, also ruled that the government must now justify the gag on the John Doe NSL recipient in the case, a gag that has been in place for more than four years.

The ACLU and New York Civil Liberties Union filed this lawsuit in April 2004 on behalf of an Internet Service Provider (ISP) that received an NSL. Because the FBI imposed a gag order on the ISP, the lawsuit was filed under seal, and even today the ACLU is prohibited from disclosing its client’s identity. The FBI continues to maintain the gag order even though the underlying investigation is more than four years old (and may well have ended), and even though the FBI abandoned its demand for records from the ISP over a year and a half ago.

In September 2004, Judge Victor Marrero of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York struck down the NSL statute, ruling that the FBI could not constitutionally demand sensitive records without judicial review and that permanent gag orders violated the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. The government appealed the ruling, but Congress amended the NSL provision before the court issued a decision.

The ACLU brought a new challenge to the amended provision, and in September 2007, Judge Marrero again found the statute unconstitutional.

Bills aimed at bringing the NSL authority back in line with the Constitution were introduced last year in both the House and Senate after reports had confirmed and detailed the widespread abuse of the authority by federal law enforcement. Since the Patriot Act was passed in 2001, relaxing restrictions on the FBI’s use of the power, the number of NSLs issued has seen an astronomical increase, to nearly 200,000 between 2003 and 2006. A March 2008 Office of Inspector General (OIG) report revealed that, among other abuses, the FBI misused NSLs to sidestep the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). In one instance, the FBI issued NSLs to obtain information after the FISC twice refused its requests on First Amendment grounds. The OIG also found that the FBI continues to impose gag orders on about 97 percent of NSL recipients and that, in some cases, the FBI failed to sufficiently justify why the gag orders were imposed in the first place.

In addition to this case, the ACLU has challenged this Patriot Act statute multiple times. One case was brought on behalf of a group of Connecticut librarians and another case, called Internet Archive v. Mukasey, involved an NSL served on a digital library in California. In the latter case, the FBI withdrew the NSL and the gag as part of the settlement of a legal challenge brought by the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Attorneys in Doe v. Mukasey are Jameel Jaffer, Goodman and L. Danielle Tully of the ACLU National Security Project and Eisenberg of the NYCLU.

Today’s decision can be found online at:

More information on Doe v. Mukasey and NSLs is available online at:

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