A federal judge in New Jersey has dismissed a lawsuit brought against the New York Police Department by a group of Muslim individuals and community groups, a suit that had alleged that the NYPD’s surveillance of them infringed on their constitutional rights. In a decision released yesterday, New Jersey U.S. District Judge William J. Martini ruled that the spying itself was legal, that the plaintiffs had no standing to bring the case, and that even if they did, they couldn’t prove that the NYPD had acted with the intention of discriminating against Muslim Americans.
This suit, filed in December 2012, was the first brought by Muslim groups against the NYPD for their surveillance program, uncovered by the Associated Press in 2011. (A second suit was filed in New York in June of 2013 by the American Civil Liberties Union.) The lead plaintiff in the New Jersey case was Syed Farhaj Hassan, a Shi’a Muslim and Iraq war veteran. The suit’s other plaintiffs included a students’ association, a council of imams in New Jersey, a beef sausage company, and several other individuals, including the principal of a grade school for Muslim girls. The suit was filed by lawyers from Muslim Advocates, a San Francisco-based group, and the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, neither of whom are very happy with the judge’s ruling.
In his decision, Judge Martini didn’t question the existence of the surveillance program, which has been pretty extensively documented. But he said that the plaintiffs had no standing to bring their case, because they couldn’t prove they had suffered an “injury in fact,” a violation of a “legally protected interest” which was both concrete and imminent. In other words, a complaint from the imams that the spying program “impaired them from engaging members in open political and religious discussion and from fulfilling the spiritual needs of their members” was too theoretical a claim on which to sue. Martini added that the plaintiffs had also failed to prove that their injuries were directly linked to the behavior of the NYPD.
In fact, Martini adds, the real “injury” to the plaintiffs came not from the NYPD spying on them, but from the disclosure of that spying by the Associated Press:
None of the Plaintiffs’ injuries arose until after the Associated Press released
unredacted, confidential NYPD documents and articles expressing its own
interpretation of those documents. Nowhere in the Complaint do Plaintiffs allege
that they suffered harm prior to the unauthorized release of the documents by the
Associated Press. This confirms that Plaintiffs’ alleged injuries flow from the
Associated Press’s unauthorized disclosure of the documents. The harms are not
“fairly traceable” to any act of surveillance.
Martini added that the plaintiffs hadn’t proved that the NYPD “acted with discriminatory purpose,” spying on them specifically due to their religion. He wrote:
[T]he Plaintiffs in this case have not alleged facts from which it can be plausibly inferred that they were targeted solely because of their religion. The more likely explanation for the surveillance was a desire to locate budding terrorist conspiracies. The most obvious reason for so concluding is that surveillance of the Muslim community began just after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The police could not have monitored New Jersey for Muslim terrorist activities without monitoring the Muslim community itself.
The Center for Constitutional Rights and Muslim Advocates have already released a joint statement on the ruling, accusing the judge of “green-lighting” the surveillance of Mulsims. CCR Legal Director Baher Azmy is quoted in part as saying, “In addition to willfully ignoring the harm that our innocent clients suffered from the NYPD’s illegal spying program, by upholding the NYPD’s blunderbuss Muslim surveillance practices, the court’s decision gives legal sanction to the targeted discrimination of Muslims anywhere and everywhere in this country, without limitation, for no other reason than their religion.”
The two groups also made it clear that they’ll appeal the decision. Glenn Keaton, Muslim Advocates’ legal director, added, “”The fight is not over by any means. The surveillance program violates the Constitution, and we are confident that this decision will not hold up to review upon appeal. The NYPD’s blatantly discriminatory program has hurt the lives of many innocent Americans–moms who fear sending their children to school, students who simply want to pray, and Muslim-owned businesses that have lost customers.”
Neither the city nor the NYPD has yet commented on the ruling, and it looks like they won’t; a spokesperson for the city’s Law Department declined to comment when reached by a Bloomberg reporter. The case in New York brought by the ACLU is still ongoing.
The full decision from Judge Martini dismissing the suit is on the following page.