WASHINGTON -- Six Muslim and Arab-American groups asked a federal court yesterday to strike down a key section of the USA Patriot Act, filing the first constitutional challenge to the sweeping new powers that Congress gave the Justice Department the month after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The lawsuit filed in US District Court in Detroit challenges a provision of the counterterrorism law that increased the FBI's access to records and personal belongings, with the permission of a secret federal court in Washington. The groups, a mix of large national and smaller local organizations, charged the expanded powers violate the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches, and the Fifth Amendment right to due process.
The challenged provision "gives the FBI the power to obtain the most private records of innocent people, without anybody ever knowing about it," said Michael J. Steinberg of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit.
"There is no need to prove the person whose records are sought is suspected of doing anything wrong," Steinberg said. "This is having a tremendous chilling effect on the Muslim community."
Civil liberties activists and defense attorneys have grown increasingly critical of the Justice Department's use of its powers under the Patriot Act -- even as department officials have publicly defended their actions.
The lawsuit was the first to make a direct constitutional attack on any part of the new law, but attorneys involved said it would not necessarily be the last. Another likely target is a provision that broadly expanded the department's powers to secretly wiretap telephones, computers, and other electronic devices.
The Justice Department defended the provision currently in dispute, describing Section 215 as having "a narrow scope that scrupulously respects First Amendment rights, requires a court order to obtain any business records, and is subject to congressional reporting and oversight on a regular basis."
Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock said the House Judiciary Committee, after reviewing department action under the provision, had concluded last October that those activities "had not given rise to any concern that the authority is being misused or abused."
The lawsuit claimed that "the FBI can use Section 215 against anyone at all, including US citizens and permanent residents."
The new law, the legal complaint said, opens the way for the FBI to obtain "any tangible thing," including books, records, papers, documents, and other items directly from an individual's home. "It also can order charities, political organizations, libraries, hospitals, Internet service providers, or indeed any person or entity to turn over the records or personal belongings of others."
If a person or organization gets an FBI demand for such items, the groups alleged, a "gag provision" in the law bars them "from ever disclosing, even in the most general terms, that the FBI has sought information from them."
The lawsuit did not list any particular actions that the Justice Department has taken to misuse the powers, saying the law's secrecy provisions prevented the plaintiffs from knowing when and how the FBI had conducted searches approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Rather, the complaint attacks the scope of federal powers under the Patriot Act.
The groups joining in the lawsuit were the American-Arab Discrimination Committee, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor (Mich.), the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, Bridge Refugee & Sponsorship Services, and the Islamic Center of Portland, Ore.
Several of the organizations said their members had already been contacted by the FBI for access to records and other items, relying on legal authority. The organizations said they "have a well-founded belief that they and their members, clients, and constituents have been or are currently the targets of investigations" under Section 215, but "have no way to know with certainty that their privacy has been compromised."
Enforcement of the provision, the legal complaint said, has caused some of the groups' members or clients "to be inhibited from publicly expressing their political views, attending mosque and practicing their religion, participating in public debate, engaging in political activity," and other innocent activities.
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