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Reporters Committee argues against "blaming the messenger" in dismissed surveillance case

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press yesterday filed an amicus brief critical of a federal court’s decision to…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press yesterday filed an amicus brief critical of a federal court’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit stemming from the New York City Police Department’s systematic, undercover surveillance of Muslims in New Jersey.

In its February ruling in Hassan v. The City of New York, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey denied standing to Muslim plaintiffs who claimed that the NYPD’s surveillance of them violated their civil rights. The court reasoned that the Associated Press caused any alleged harm when it uncovered the program, and that the plaintiffs had no right to sue the government.

The Reporters Committee, joined by North Jersey Media Group Inc.,  argues in a brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that this ruling ignores the essential role of investigative journalism in democracy and misinterprets the law of Article III standing.

The Associated Press won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2012 for its series exposing the NYPD’s practice of spying on Muslims in community gathering places, such as mosques, stores and restaurants. The NYPD engaged in this surveillance regardless of whether there was evidence that the targets may have committed a crime.

The Reporters Committee argues that the district court wrongly took aim at the messenger when it found that that the Associated Press, rather than the City of New York, caused any alleged injury. Supreme Court precedent shows that the harm needed for standing occurs when an entity invades a legally protected interest and not when a plaintiff learns of the invasion.

“In ruling on the City’s motion to dismiss, the District Court has done a remarkable thing:  it has held as a matter of the law that the prize-winning journalists who uncovered this program, not the city officials who designed it and carried it out, are responsible for the claimed injuries, thus depriving the plaintiffs of standing to bring their lawsuit to redress the alleged government wrongs,” the brief argues.

The brief also argues that the district court ignores that the Supreme Court has long embraced the essential role of investigative journalists in exposing and explaining government conduct to the public.

“From the muckrakers of the early 1900s to the Watergate reporters of the 1970s to the broad range of watchdog journalism practiced today, investigative reporters have played a crucial role in informing the public about the conduct of government and in sparking reform where necessary,” the brief argues. “The Associated Press’s reporting on New York City’s surveillance of Muslim communities fits squarely into this tradition.  The journalists in this case revealed the alleged injuries.  They did not cause them.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights is counsel of record for the plaintiffs.