Federal Judge Strikes Down Patriot Act NSL Provision
Earlier today, a federal judge struck down a part of the Patriot Act allowing the service of National Security Letters without judicial oversight. An AP report on the decision can be found here. NSLs, as Dan has blogged about here and here, are a statutory authorization to the FBI that allow it to secretly obtain records about people from businesses and instututions with which they have a relationship. NSLs don’t require judicial oversight and some requirement of individualized suspicion or probably cause, but merely some “relevance” to an ongoing national security investigation. This relevance determination is made internally by the FBI and does not have to be put before a neutral judge or other official.
The opinion is complicated (and long at 106 pages), but I think any assertion that NSLs need to be regulated by a neutral decisionmaker is a step in the right direction. NSLs, as the district court recognizes, threaten First Amendment values. As I’ve argued in a recent article, NSLs threaten a variety of important interests, but most especially threaten the intellectual privacy of ordinary people. NSLs can be used to request a wide variety of information, including historical and transactional information relating to telephone calls and e-mails. As intellectual activity becomes increasingly mediated by the use of computers and the Internet (i.e., what you are doing right now in reading this post), the records created from such activity remain secreted by ISPs, websites like this one, and on our hard drives. The creation of these records provide a potential gold mine to government and others who are interested in learning about the ways in which we engage with and develop our thoughts and ideas. Both popular literature and legal theory have long documented the chilling effect on expression that results from the surveillance of our intellectual activities (including reading, thinking, and speaking). NSLs are one of the main tools by which government can obtain information about our intellectual activities, and thus the interposition of some meaningful legal constraint upon the power of the government to do this is essential. This is not to minimize the government interest in deterring and preventing threats to our national security, but merely to note that when the government engages in intellectual surveillance, there is an equally important interest on the other side — our freedom of thought and our ability to generate new and potentially controversial ideas.
This important case is certain to be appealed by the government, and it will be interesting to see what happens.