By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City’s secret police surveillance of mosques, Muslim businesses and a Muslim student group in New Jersey did not violate the U.S. Constitution, a federal judge ruled on Thursday.
U.S. District Judge William Martini in Newark, New Jersey, threw out a lawsuit brought by several New Jersey Muslims who claimed the New York Police Department illegally targeted them for undercover monitoring solely because of their religion.
The police department’s widespread program was first revealed in a series of articles by the Associated Press, which reported that officers had infiltrated Muslim organizations throughout the region following the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001.
The plaintiffs in the case, led by Syed Farhaj Hassan, a U.S. Army reservist, claimed the program impaired their freedom of expression, caused them to stop attending religious services and threatened their careers.
In a 10-page ruling, Martini said the city had persuasively argued that its surveillance was intended as an anti-terrorism, not an anti-Muslim, measure.
“While this surveillance program may have had adverse effects upon the Muslim community after the Associated Press published its articles, the motive for the program was not solely to discriminate against Muslims, but rather to find Muslim terrorists hiding among ordinary, law-abiding Muslims,” Martini wrote.
Baher Azmy of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented the plaintiffs along with the organization Muslim Advocates, compared Martini’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 1944 that the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was constitutional.
“The decision gives legal sanctions to broad, undifferentiated racial and religious profiling,” he said, calling it a “dangerous” finding. Azmy said the plaintiffs would appeal the decision.
A spokesman for the city’s law department declined to comment.
Muslim Advocates filed the initial lawsuit in 2012 on behalf of several Muslim individuals and groups and was later joined by the Center for Constitutional Rights.
The New York Civil Liberties Union has filed a similar federal lawsuit against New York City in Brooklyn, which remains pending.
In addition, a group of civil rights lawyers have filed court papers in Manhattan federal court claiming the city’s surveillance runs afoul of a longstanding court order governing how police can monitor certain political organizations.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and police officials defended the program as vital to anti-terrorism efforts. It is unclear whether the new mayor, Bill de Blasio, will change the city’s legal approach to the surveillance issue.
(This story was corrected to clarify that Muslim Advocates filed the initial lawsuit and the Center for Constitutional Rights joined later as co-counsel)
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Ken Wills)