In a stunning legal decision issued today, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Muslim-Americans who had been subjected to blanket mass surveillance by the NYPD Intelligence Division have grounds to sue the department for discrimination. The ruling reverses a 2014 decision by the United States District Court of New Jersey that found the plaintiffs had insufficient legal standing to challenge the surveillance against them, and that the blanket surveillance of Muslim communities itself was not evidence of bias.
Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, lauded today’s verdict, saying “The courts could not deny that in fact there is reason to believe that the NYPD engages in unwarranted surveillance of Muslims based on their faith alone. … We haven’t won yet, but this is a step in the right direction.” Sarsour also said the NYPD program had generated widespread fear and paranoia. “This issue has never been just paranoia; this is a reality for Muslim communities,” she added.
In 2011, a landmark investigation by the Associated Press revealed that the NYPD’s Intelligence Division had been conducting highly invasive, suspicion-less surveillance on Muslim-Americans living in and around the New York area. This surveillance, which lasted for years and involved mapping out Muslim neighborhoods and businesses, building databases of information on ordinary people, and using undercover operatives to infiltrate entire communities, ultimately failed to turn up even one lead related to terrorism.
Despite failing to make any meaningful contribution to the fight against terrorism, the NYPD program, which was officially disbanded in 2014, did manage to fuel widespread paranoia among Muslim-Americans, while also triggering a number of lawsuits seeking to halt what was perceived to be a blatantly discriminatory program. Among these were the lawsuit filed in 2012 by the Center for Constitutional Rights and Muslim Advocates that the court upheld today.
In its ruling, the court took pains to position the mass surveillance of Muslim-Americans within a broader historical context of misguided suspicion and hostility toward minority communities in the United States. In a strongly worded opinion, the court wrote, “We have been down similar roads before. Jewish-Americans during the Red Scare, African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, and Japanese-Americans during World War II.” Citing another decision, it added that “we are left to wonder why we cannot see with foresight what we see so clearly with hindsight — that ‘loyalty is a matter of the heart and mind, not race, creed, or color.’”
The decision, as well as the exceptionally strong language used to deliver it, was welcomed by the civil society organizations that had been working to bring the spying program to legal scrutiny.
“The court was clearly writing for history by comparing this program to policies in the past that targeted Japanese-Americans, Jews and others,” said Glenn Katon, legal director of Muslim Advocates. “We hope that this decision reverberates not just throughout the country but throughout the federal government as well, which we know is still conducting all types of surveillance based on religion and ethnicity.”
Caption: People walk past immigrant Arab businesses on Steinway Street in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, New York, Sept. 2, 2011.