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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Tales of Speech Chilled|by NSA From 22 Groups

(CN) - Mass government surveillance of telephone records has discouraged people from voicing dissent, 22 separate advocacy organizations say in 104 pages of declarations.

The declarations came Wednesday in support of a motion for summary judgment against the National Security Agency over its dragnet collection of telephone records. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed the federal complaint this past July in San Francisco on behalf of a diverse group of environmentalists, religious organizations, human-rights workers and other advocacy groups.

EFF's lawsuit had been spurred by the government's admitted surveillance of U.S. phone calls, first brought to light by Edward Snowden with the leak of a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order that authorized the mass collection of Verizon telephone records.

The digital rights group says each of its clients depends on the First Amendment's guarantee of free association.

"If the government vacuums up the records of every phone call - who made the call, who received the call, when and how long the parties spoke - then people will be afraid to join or engage with organizations that may have dissenting views on political issues of the day," the EFF said in a statement Wednesday.

Heidi Boghosian of the National Lawyers Guild wrote the first of 22 declarations in support of the EFF's motion for summary judgment.

"Revelations of NSA surveillance in the press has caused NLG members working on litigation and advocacy to restrict discussion of legal strategy, case updates and confidential information to in-person meetings or to written correspondence sent by mail," she wrote. "Practical restraints on the frequency of these meetings results-in less robust information to pass between attorneys and has potentially hindered Guild members from providing as vigorous a legal representation as would have otherwise been possible with secure electronic communication channels."

Dinah PoKempner for Human Rights Watch said: "While it is difficult to get precise information about communications that did not occur, based on the concerns raised by others, I believe that some individuals may have refrained from reporting human rights abuses to us and some partners may have refrained from contacting us due to their concerns about security and confidentiality."

Jennifer Nimer, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations voiced her concern that anyone who contacts her organization may be considered "guilty by association" by the NSA because of its advocacy on behalf of the wrongly accused.

"When the very act of communicating by phone with those we aim to serve puts our constituents at risk for further government scrutiny, our organizational mission is essentially undermined," Nimer testified.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center said the revelation of NSA surveillance made him "rethink whether I wanted to continue in sharp religiously rooted prophetic criticism and action in regard to disastrous public policies. I had trouble sleeping, delayed some essays and blogs I had been considering, and worried whether my actions might make trouble for nonpolitical relatives."

Several organizations said that they have received markedly fewer hotline calls after Snowden's revelation.

Acorn Active Media, Bill of Rights Defense Committee, California Association of Federal Firearms Licensees, Calguns Foundation, Charity & Security Network, Franklin Armory, Free Press, Free Software Foundation, First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, Greenpeace, Media Alliance, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, People for the American Way, Public Knowledge, Patient Privacy Rights Foundation, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, TechFreedom, and Unitarian Universalist Service Committee also filed declarations regarding the chilling effect knowledge of NSA surveillance has had on their members' exercise of free speech.

"Section 215 is a simple statute designed to give the FBI something like the subpoena power available in criminal investigations," attorney Thomas Moore, an EFF special counsel, said in a statement. "It was not intended to authorize the dragnet surveillance the NSA has undertaken. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people should not be spying on the people."

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