ACLU Files Challenge to Section 215 of USA Patriot Act

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On Wednesday, July 30, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed on behalf of six advocacy and community groups a legal challenge to Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act in federal court in Detroit. Members and clients of the six groups contend that they are currently the targets of investigation because of their ethnicity, religion, and political association, according to an ACLU press release. The lawsuit names Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller as the defendants. According to the ACLU, it is the first-ever legal challenge to the controversial law.

"Ordinary Americans should not have to worry that the FBI is rifling through their medical records, seizing their personal papers, or forcing charities and advocacy groups to divulge membership lists," said Ann Beeson, associate legal director of the ACLU and the lead attorney in the lawsuit, in a press statement. "Investing the FBI with unchecked authority to monitor the activities of innocent people is an invitation to abuse, a waste of resources, and is certainly not making any of us safer."

Section 215 amends the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to vastly expand the power of the FBI to secretly search the bookstore, library, medical, and other personal records of anyone it believes may have information relevant to a foreign intelligence investigation.

Over the past year, the Patriot Act has come under fire from a number advocacy and civil liberties group, including the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), and from members of both the Democratic and Republican parties in Congress and the Senate.

In March 2003, Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced a bill, The Freedom to Read Protection Act (H.R. 1157), to repeal Section 215. (For a previous article on Sanders' bill, as well as other free expression issues, click here.) And on July 21, Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter's (R-ID) amendment to the Commerce, Justice, State, and Judiciary Appropriations Bill of 2004 to withhold funding for "sneak and peek" searches of private property under Section 213 of the Patriot Act passed in the U.S. House of Representatives by a count of 309 - 118 in favor.

Section 213 allows delayed notification of the execution of search warrants. It authorizes no-knock searches of private residences, either physically or electronically. The amendment to Section 213 was co-sponsored by Representatives Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Ron Paul (R-TX) and is the first proposed change to the USA Patriot Act. (For a previous article on this topic, click here.)

In a report released on Wednesday, the ACLU argues that Section 215 violates both the First and Fourth Amendment.

Section 215 violates the First Amendment, the report argued, because it allows the FBI to easily obtain information about reading habits, religious affiliations, Internet use, and other expressive activities that would be chilled by the threat of investigation. Moreover, it imposes a gag order that prohibits those served with orders from telling anyone that the FBI demanded information, even if the information is not tied to a particular suspect and poses no risk to national security.

It violates the Fourth Amendment, the report contended, by allowing the FBI to search and seize records or personal belongings without a warrant, without showing probable cause, and without ever notifying innocent people of the searches.

The groups participating in the ACLU's lawsuit are: Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor (MCA), which operates a mosque and school in Ann Arbor, Michigan; American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a national civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C.; Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), a human services organization based in Dearborn, Michigan, which operates a medical clinic as well as a center for refugees and torture victims; Bridge Refugee and Sponsorship Services ("Bridge"), based in Knoxville; the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a grassroots membership organization based in Washington, D.C.; and The Islamic Center of Portland, Masjed As-Saber, which operates a mosque and school, based in Portland, Oregon.

The ACLU's complaint is available at