A federal appeals court on Tuesday reversed a previous decision by a lower court that dismissed a challenge to the National Security Agency's (NSA) mass surveillance operations, scoring an "important victory for the rule of law."
Tuesday's unanimous decision by the Fourth Circuit Appeals Court means a case against the NSA filed by the Wikimedia Foundation can proceed, after the judges ruled that the plaintiffs had provided enough evidence that the NSA was monitoring their communications as part of its Upstream surveillance program.
"This is an important victory for the rule of law. The NSA has secretly spied on Americans' internet communications for years, but now this surveillance will finally face badly needed scrutiny in our public courts. We look forward to arguing this case on the merits," said Patrick Toomey, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is representing the plaintiffs.
"Our government shouldn't be searching the private communications of innocent people in bulk, examining the contents of Americans' emails and chats day in and day out. This mass surveillance threatens the foundations of a free internet," Toomey said.
The three-judge panel found that Wikimedia had standing to argue that the NSA was violating its First and Fourth Amendment rights by spying on its communications.
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"Wikimedia has plausibly alleged that its communications travel all of the roads that a communication can take, and that the NSA seizes all of the communications along at least one of those roads," the opinion stated.
The panel's ruling overturns an October 2015 decision by the district court, which said the plaintiffs had not adequately proven that their communications were being monitored.
The other plaintiffs are The Nation magazine, Amnesty International USA, PEN America, Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Rutherford Institute, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Global Fund for Women, and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Their cases will not move forward, due to their smaller online presence, the panel ruled.
Still, the decision signaled an important victory in the fight against government spying, attorneys said.
"This kind of indiscriminate surveillance has grave implications for individual rights, including the freedoms of speech and association," said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which also represented the plaintiffs. "It's gratifying that the appeals court has rejected the government's effort to shield this surveillance from constitutional review."