PATRIOT Act Fears Are Stifling Free Speech, ACLU Says in Challenge to Law

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
November 3, 2003 12:00 am

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NEW YORK – Fear of the PATRIOT Act has caused a dramatic decline in memberships and donations at mosques and forced a church-sponsored group that aids refugees to change its record-keeping practices, the American Civil Liberties Union said in legal papers filed today in Detroit.

This First Amendment “chill” is reminiscent of an earlier era when the government attempted to shut down dissent by investigating groups like the NAACP and the Japanese American Citizens League, the ACLU said. “Notably, those groups and other civil rights, immigrant and free speech advocates today filed briefs supporting the ACLU’s challenge to the law.

“Sadly, our government has an ugly history of using its investigative powers to squelch dissent,” said ACLU Associate Legal Director Ann Beeson.”We saw it during the Japanese internments of World War II, the Red Scare of the 1950’s and the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, and now we see it in the post-9/11 investigations and detention of Arabs and Muslims.”

“Our clients have every reason to believe that in 21st Century America they will be subjected to new abuses of power under the PATRIOT Act — and what’s worse, under this radical law they may never learn that the government has violated their rights,” she added.

In a brief filed before a federal court in Detroit, the ACLU opposed the government’s motion to dismiss its challenge to Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, a law that vastly expands the power of FBI agents to secretly obtain records and personal belongings of innocent people in the United States, including citizens and permanent residents.

The case was filed in Detroit on July 30 on behalf of six nonprofit organizations that provide a wide range of religious, medical, social and educational services to communities around the country. The lawsuit names Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller as defendants.”A hearing in the case is scheduled for December 3 before Judge Denise Page Hood of the U.S. District Court in Detroit.

Coalitions representing more than two dozen civil rights, immigrant and First Amendment advocacy organizations today filed three separate “friend-of-the-court” briefs saying that the law also violates their members’ First Amendment rights to free speech and free association as well as their right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment.”

The NAACP, whose members include people of Arab, Muslim and South Asian backgrounds, noted in its brief that during the 1960’s, its members “feared they would lose their jobs and be attacked physically if their membership in the organization was disclosed.” A government requirement that the organization disclose the names of its members “caused membership in Louisiana to drop from 12,000 to 1,700.””

The threat of similar government actions today has had a similar effect on the Arab and Muslim community and organizations that serve them, the ACLU said in legal papers – all the more so because those actions take place in secret.

The Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor (MCA), the lead plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit, said in an affidavit that “attendance at prayer services, educational forums and social events has substantially dropped” and donations to the group are almost half of what they were before 2001. The group also said that some members have curtailed their political speech, and one member asked that all records pertaining to himself and his family be deleted from MCA’s database.

Mary Lieberman, executive director of Bridge Refuge and Sponsorship Services, a church-affiliated organization in Tennessee, has directed her staff to change the way they keep records in order to minimize the chance that personal information will be disclosed to government investigators on fishing expeditions for information about clients from Iraq and Iran.”

Other groups that signed the “friend-of-the-court” briefs filed today include American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, American Friends Service Committee, Japanese American Citizens League and Episcopal Migration Ministries. For a complete list of the ACLU’s clients and the groups that filed “friend-of-the-court” briefs.

The case is Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor et al. v. John Ashcroft, Civil Action No. 03-72913, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division. In addition to Beeson, attorneys in the case are Jameel Jaffer of the national ACLU and Michael J. Steinberg, Noel Saleh and Kary Moss of the ACLU of Michigan.

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