New York Muslims Mount Legal Challenge To Ubiquitous NYPD Surveillance

A sign in the Muslim Student Association room at Hunter College. The sign points to a news report on NYPD spying.

Just as the trial is wrapping up in one major challenge to New York Police Department practices, another is ramping up. In the wake of Associated Press reports that NYPD engages in aggressive spying of Muslims, the New York Civil Liberties Union is filing a lawsuit on behalf of Muslim New Yorkers to challenge the surveillance they say amounts to racial profiling and violates their religious liberties.

Under the aggressive program, undercover informants infiltrate Mosques, restaurants, bookstores, and Muslim student associations without any particular suspicion of the places being monitored or the people being surveilled. Officers also monitor Muslims’ social media activity, websites, and blogs. The “Demographics Unit,” established after 9/11, developed databases based on this information. But NYPD leaders have acknowledged that this mapping of the Muslim community has not generated a single lead, according to the lawsuit.

A recent study by civil rights groups found that this systematic surveillance has had a severe chilling effect on Muslims’ speech, religious activity, and community life. Muslims fear speaking out even about the New York Police Department surveillance itself, and even youths described the fear of being arrested as “very real,” deterring them from activity that ranges from community involvement and speaking in class, to posting expressive messages on Facebook.

In interviews with 57 students, business owners, community leaders and educators, many recount having been asked to spy on their peers. One student recalled having been called into the principal’s office at age 16 and asked by the NYPD about her online activity. Several individuals described being questioned as suspects, and then later offered bribes to serve as informants when police realized they were not suspicious – told in moments of financial weakness that the police could “give them their freedom” by paying them for spying or providing them with a place to live. “These incidents – not infrequent in certain communities – have led many to realize that others, possibly their own peers, may not be as able to resist the pressures of working as informants,” the report said. This has bred mistrust both within the Muslim community and of law enforcement officers, prompting individuals and even businesses to accuse one another of being informants.

One of the most widespread and alarming elements of this NYPD surveillance was the recruitment of young people to infiltrate college groups. AP reports revealed that informants even accompanied students on a whitewater rafting trip, leading to fear that informants could be anyone and infiltrate anywhere.

In the NYCLU lawsuit, plaintiffs include an imam, who, after a disconcerting visit from police officers, started recording his own sermons for fear that his statements would be taken out of context or misreported. Another leads a charity whose reputation and fundraising capacity were pummeled after it became public that informants had infiltrated the group.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) has vigorously defended the program, and an NYPD representative said this week that guidelines authorize extensive police activity. A post-9/11 court order expanded the scope of allowable police surveillance over political activity, but does not allow surveillance that violates religious or other constitutional rights.