The U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.) ruled last week that Muslim plaintiffs can pursue a lawsuit against the City of New York for its police department’s secret surveillance of their communities in New Jersey.
“No one should ever be spied on and treated like a suspect simply because of his or her faith,” lead plaintiff of the lawsuit, Farhaj Hassan told Muslim Advocates.
The decision reinstates a case that had been dismissed after the district court judge found that the harm had been caused by the AP's reporting on the police surveillance, not by the police department itself.
This case was brought shortly after the Associated Press in 2011 uncovered the New York City Police Department’s infiltration and monitoring program of Muslim communities and individuals in New York, New Jersey and the surrounding area.
Police documents obtained by AP showed that NYPD had implemented a surveillance program on Muslim communities without clear targets or criminal leads after the Sept. 11 attack. According to the reports, the police department had been placing undercover agents in Muslim neighbors, schools and mosques and monitoring Muslim college students’ Internet activities. An informant also told AP that NYPD had paid "baits" to infiltrate Muslim organizations and instigate members in the community to say inflammatory things.
This exposure of the human mapping program brought AP the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2012 and the New York City Police Department a number of lawsuits.
Muslim communities in New Jersey sued the City of New York in 2012 over the surveillance and the harm it has caused. But after legal battles, a federal judge in New Jersey dismissed the complaint last year. U.S. District Judge William Martini held that the plaintiffs' injuries arose from the fact that the AP released the information.
In an amicus brief with North Jersey Media Group Inc., The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press found fault with blaming the press for undertaking its watchdog role.
“The Associated Press’s coverage of the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program fits right into the long American tradition of important investigative journalism that leads to public debate and discussion about the use of government power in a democracy,” the Reporters Committee wrote.
The appeals court’s recent ruling did not decide the issue of whether the surveillance was constitutional, but simply found that the plaintiffs have standing to bring a lawsuit, thereby reinstating the case.
“Today is a good day for the civil rights of all Americans,” said Muslim Advocates Legal Director Glenn Katon in a statement. “The court agreed that American Muslims cannot be treated like second class citizens by police because of their faith. We look forward to continuing our case to ensure that no American should be spied on simply because of the way he or she prays.”
A New York City Law Department spokesperson said in a statement that NYPD has never condoned surveilling individuals and businesses solely because of their religion and stigmatizing a group based on its religion is contrary to their values.