When we speak of the government’s ongoing assault against the First Amendment, it is typically in the context of Freedom of Speech. That is indeed primarily the focus, using the tools of The State to silence its critics. But not if you are a Muslim.
For many Muslims, the clause inside the First Amendment most often violated is that of Freedom of Religion. One of the latest battles in that war is playing out now in New York City.
Because the worst of the 9/11 attacks happened in New York, the city has always claimed a kind of de facto exemption from having to follow the rule of law. Under its former mayors, the NYPD actively conducted blanket surveillance of the Muslim community, to include sending undercover cops into mosques and Muslim social events for “intel.” Though no obvious terror attacks were identified or thwarted, the NYPD insisted the program was critical (see the same tired arguments expelled as “torture worked, though we won’t tell you how.”)
NY’s current mayor, Bill Blasio, promised in April of 2014 to dismantle the so-called NYPD Demographics Unit, which was responsible for singling out one religious group among all others, apparently based on the twisted post-9/11 logic of “Muslim –> Likely Terrorist –> Spy on all Muslims.”
However, despite the promise, the NYPD has continued its spying in violation of the First Amendment.
The most recent example was discovered when the website The Gothamist wrote about an NYPD undercover detective who converted to Islam to spy on students at a local college. The police admitted to the spying, but claimed it did not violate the First Amendment in that it was “targeted” and not “overarching blanket surveillance.” The undercover cop developed intimate ties with the students she met, even attending bridal showers and weddings. She also joined the school’s Islamic Society to gather information on Muslim students.
Glenn Katon, legal director for Muslim Advocates and a lead attorney in Hassan v. City of New York, which alleges that the NYPD engaged in a program of “blanket, suspicionless surveillance” that discriminated on the basis of religion, recently won a small victory when the Third Circuit court found that the Hassan plaintiffs had standing and raised valid constitutional concerns, and reversed the suit’s previous dismissal. The courts had previously in that dismissal required the plaintiffs to prove on an individual and personal basis that they had been surveilled, a difficult request given that while the NYPD admitted blanket surveilling the Muslim community, it would not confirm individual cases (see “Catch-22” in the dictionary.)
An attorney in another ongoing lawsuit against the NYPD, Handschu v. Special Services Division, stated that for a police officer to be placed undercover for as long as in the current case, there would have to be a terrorism enterprise investigation in place, which would require permission from the Commissioner of Intelligence and proof of an ongoing criminal conspiracy. No such terrorism enterprise or ongoing criminal conspiracy has even been alleged by the NYPD. They conducted the spying anyway based on the idea that terrorists are Muslims so therefore all Muslims must be treated as potential terrorists.
Indeed, Handschu originally dates back to 1985, when the courts prohibited the NYPD from investigating political and religious organizations and groups unless there was “specific information” that the group was linked to a crime that had been committed or was about to be committed. Following 9/11, the NYPD has counter-sued, sought to modify and/or ignored what are known as the Handschu Guidelines as they wished.
NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller said, without apparent shame, that the need to prevent terrorist attacks sometimes comes into conflict with the need to respect the constitutional rights terrorists in theory are attacking. “We have two sets of tensions that pull against each other every day, and the hardest thing to have to do is find a balance.” Um, no. Our freedoms are ensured by the Constitution John Miller, that document you are sworn to uphold and protect.
Miller might want to run his ideas by the Supreme Court, and perhaps a few of the innocent Muslim students whose religion alone put them under surveillance. They might argue that what the cops call the need for public safety indeed puts them outside the scope of Americans who qualify for that safety.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.