New Jersey Muslims sue NYPD to end surveillance

The plaintiffs say the NYPD's program to monitor Muslims on the basis of their religion is a constitutional violation. The NYPD says it's a necessary safeguard against future terrorism.

Mary Altaffer
Syed Farhaj Hassan (r.) is joined by Glenn Katon, legal director of Muslim Advocates, as he speaks to reporters during a news conference, Wednesday, June 6, in New York. Hassan is one of eight Muslims who filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday in New Jersey to force the New York Police Department to end its surveillance and other intelligence-gathering practices targeting Muslims.

After the Associated Press revealed that the NYPD was conducting surveillance of Muslims on the basis of their religion, legal scholars immediately began to debate whether the NYPD's program was a violation of the First Amendment. Now, the issue is set to be heard in a federal courtroom in New Jersey.

A group of New Jersey residents, mosques, and organizations on Wednesday filed a federal lawsuit against the City of New York, accusing the NYPD of violating their constitutional rights by targeting them for surveillance outside of mosques, in Muslim student group meetings, and at religious schools on the basis of their religion. The lawsuit could help define how far investigators can go in the name of national security.

“The facts are just so compelling, what the NYPD is doing is egregious. It may be going on in other law enforcement agencies, but the AP reports are a smoking gun that they are targeting people based on religion,” says Glenn Katon, legal director of Muslim Advocates, a California-based nonprofit that is representing the plaintiffs.

So far, the NYPD's tactics have included sending an officer on a student whitewater rafting trip to note how frequently participants stopped for prayer, taking down the license plate numbers of cars parked at mosques, and noting patrons and employees in shops catering to observant Muslims.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has said that police need to do this type of work in a post-9/11 world. In a statement, NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne referred to New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa’s determination that the surveillance efforts were legal. Mr. Browne added that “NYPD activities in New Jersey were lawful, appropriate, and in keeping with efforts there, in New York, and around the world to prevent terrorists from returning here to kill more New Yorkers.”

The plaintiffs, who are suing to end the surveillance and to expunge the police files, think a jury will disagree. They say that the police have deterred their free exercise of religious belief and hurt Muslim businesses.

Those suing the City of New York include Syed Farhaj Hassan, a decorated veteran from the war in Iraq. Mr. Hassan says the surveillance has deterred him from attending religious services because he does not want his military intelligence career harmed by an association with mosques being monitored.

Among other plaintiffs are a college student who says she doesn’t feel free discussing matters of religion at Muslim student meetings for fear that she may be watched by undercover cops, and businesses who say they’ve lost customers after the revelation that they were under surveillance.

“We thought that these things were left behind during the McCarthy era, targeting people based on race and religion alone, vilifying an entire community,” says Abed Ayoub, legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “We need some accountability. If we allow the NYPD to do this we are throwing our right to privacy away.”

Though this is the first lawsuit to challenge the NYPD tactics, Mr. Ayoub thinks it won’t be the last. “This is probably only the beginning of the challenges that are going to come forward, both on the legal and the policy level.”

For a jury to determine that the surveillance tactics are illegal, the plaintiffs will have to show that the police program impermissibly harmed the free exercise of religion.

Mr. Katon says that some people defend the surveillance by saying that it only happens in public places.

But, he says, “Anything that targets people based on religion or race poses a serious problem in our society. If you said we’re only going to watch Catholics; or we’re only going to watch Kosher delis but not German or Italian delis, that should offend everybody.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to