Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

A Transportation Security Administration agent at a checkpoint verifying passenger identification in John Glenn Columbus International Airport.

A Transportation Security Administration agent at a checkpoint verifying passenger identification in John Glenn Columbus International Airport. (Photo: Michael Ball/cc)

Victory Over 'Civil Liberties Train Wreck' as Federal Judge Rules US Terror Watchlist Unconstitutional

After years of abuse and secrecy, court's decision seen by rights advocates as very welcome but "long overdue"

Eoin Higgins

A federal judge on Wednesday ruled that the government's terror watchlist violates the civil rights of Americans placed on it, opening the door for a major piece of legislation from the global war on terror being overturned. 

"This is a really important ruling, long overdue," said Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. "The watchlist is overbroad, opaque, and arbitrary—a civil liberties train wreck."

The ruling (pdf) stemmed from a lawsuit brought by 19 Americans on the list represented by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). 

"Today's opinion is a victory for the more than one hundred American Muslims we represent and for the thousands of American Muslims who are currently stigmatized by the watchlist," CAIR national litigation director Lena Masri said in a statment.

The New York Times broke the story Wednesday evening:

Being on the watchlist can restrict people from traveling or entering the country, subject them to greater scrutiny at airports and by the police, and deny them government benefits and contracts. In a 32-page opinion, Judge Anthony J. Trenga of United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia said the standard for inclusion in the database was too vague.

"The court concludes that the risk of erroneous deprivation of plaintiffs' travel-related and reputational liberty interests is high, and the currently existing procedural safeguards are not sufficient to address that risk," Judge Trenga wrote.

"About time somebody did something about this," tweeted journalist Dan Froomkin. 

The watchlist is part of a system of abuses and unlawful overreach that rose out of the so-called "War on Terror," The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald said on Twitter. 

The ruling was welcomed by the ACLU's National Security Project director Hina Shamsi.

"This important decision is exactly right," said Shamsi. "The government watchlist stigmatizes people as terrorism suspects based on a vague and error-prone standard and secret evidence, and causes real harms. It violates due process."

Shamsi added that the next steps must address how to repair the damage done by years of the watchlist.

"There must be a fair and meaningful process for people to challenge wrongful placement on the watchlist and clear their names," Shamsi said.

The fight will go on, CAIR senior litigation attorney Gadeir Abbas said in a statment. 

"Every step of this case revealed new layers of government secrets, including that the government shares the watchlist with private companies and more than sixty foreign countries," said Abbas. "CAIR will continue its fight until the full scope of the government’s shadowy watchlist activities is disclosed to the American public."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

ACLU Demands 'Truly Systemic Overhaul' of US Civilian Harm Policies

"While a serious Defense Department focus on civilian harm is long overdue and welcome, it's unclear that this directive will be enough," says director of the legal group's National Security Project.

Jessica Corbett ·


'This Is Not Over': Alaska Supreme Court Rejects Youth Climate Case

"With the state continuing to undermine their health, safety, and futures," said the plaintiffs' lead counsel, "we will evaluate our next steps and will continue to fight for climate justice."

Jessica Corbett ·


Analysis Finds 'Staggering' Rise in Voter Suppression After GOP Restrictions in Georgia

"This is why we are fighting this new law in court," said one voting rights advocate.

Brett Wilkins ·


'Egregious': Pennsylvania Court Strikes Down Mail-In Voting Law

The ruling was stayed pending an appeal to the state's Supreme Court and as one voting advocate put it: "The fight's not over yet, folks."

Julia Conley ·


Big Win for Open Internet as Court Upholds California Net Neutrality Law

One legal advocate called the Ninth Circuit's opinion "a great decision and a major victory for internet users in California and nationwide."

Kenny Stancil ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo