Shocker: Court Says National Security Letters Are Unconstitutional, Bans Them
from the didn't-see-that-coming dept
Well here’s a surprising (and important) bit of late-Friday-breaking news. A federal court has ruled that national security letters (NSLs) are unconstitutional, and banned their use. For years we’ve covered the use and abuse of NSLs, which basically allow law enforcement to demand (with almost no oversight) information from service providers, and which include a total gag order, entirely blocking people from talking about the letters. These NSLs are used all the time, and pretty much every time anyone looks into the use of NSLs, there’s an admission that they’re abused, but little has been done to fix that. Until now.
We wrote about this particular case last year, when the DOJ took the extraordinary step of suing a telco for daring to question whether or not NSLs were legal, claiming that its failure to hand over the info violated the law. The court disagreed.
The Court finds that, as written, the statute impermissibly attempts to circumscribe a court’s ability to review the necessity of nondisclosure orders. As noted above, while not a “classic” prior restraint or content-based speech restriction, the NSL nondisclosure provisions significantly infringe on speech regarding controversial government powers. As such, the Court can only sustain nondisclosure based on a searching standard of review, a standard incompatible with the deference mandated by Sections 3511(b) and (c). As written, the statute expressly limits a court’s powers to modify or set aside a nondisclosure order to situations where there is “no reason to believe” that disclosure “may” lead to an enumerated harm; and if a specified official has certified that such a ham “may” occur, that determination is “conclusive.” The statute’s intent — to circumscribe a court’s ability to modify or set aside nondisclosure NSLS unless the essentially insurmountable standard “no reason to believe” that a harm “may” result is satisfied — is incompatible with the court’s duty to searchingly test restrictions on speech. See, e. John Doe, Inc. v. Mukasey, 549 F.3d at 883 (“The fiat of a governmental official, though senior in rank and doubtless honorable in the execution of official duties, cannot displace the judicial obligation to enforce constitutional requirements. ‘Under no circumstances should the Judiciary become the handmaiden of the Executive.’
The remedy is to bar the government from issuing any NSLs or enforcing the nondisclosure gag order in any issued NSLs… but, knowing that the government is going to appeal, it has given a window for that to happen. So, we’ve got a long way to go before we see what happens here, but make no mistake, this is a huge ruling pushing back on a massive abuse of power by the government.