Following this post, several readers have asked me where the press got the idea that the recent court decision in New York invalidated a major part of the Patriot Act. I assume the main source is this ACLU press release, which begins:
In ACLU Case, Federal Court Strikes Down Patriot Act Surveillance Power As Unconstitutional
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
NEW YORK – Saying that “democracy abhors undue secrecy,” a federal court today struck down an entire Patriot Act provision that gives the government unchecked authority to issue “National Security Letters” to obtain sensitive customer records from Internet Service Providers and other businesses without judicial oversight. The court also found a broad gag provision in the law to be an “unconstitutional prior restraint” on free speech.
“This is a landmark victory against the Ashcroft Justice Department’s misguided attempt to intrude into the lives of innocent Americans in the name of national security,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. “Even now, some in Congress are trying to pass additional intrusive law enforcement powers. This decision should put a halt to those efforts.”
The American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union, which brought a challenge to the law earlier this year, hailed the ruling as a signal blow to the current administration’s efforts to expand government surveillance powers in violation of the Constitution.
“Today’s ruling is a wholesale refutation of excessive government secrecy and unchecked executive power,” said ACLU attorney Jameel Jaffer. “As this decision suggests, certain provisions of the Patriot Act should never have been enacted in the first place.”
The ruling is the first to strike down any of the vast new surveillance powers authorized by the Patriot Act.
I can understand the difficulties that long and complicated legal opinions raise for many reporters. Imagine you are a reporter who covers legal issues and terrorism. It’s late on a Wednesday afternoon, and a court hands down a 122-page legal opinion. You have just a few hours to write a story on it. The Justice Department declines comment, so that’s no help. But then the ACLU gives you a nice and easy-to-understand press release that tells you what the opinion does, what it means, and offers a few great soundbites. With a deadline just a few hours away, what are you going to do — wade through 122 pages of hypertechnical legalese yourself, or base your story at least in large part on the ACLU’s press release?
UPDATE: Senator John Cornyn of Texas is on the case. As I understand it, he held a press conference on this earlier today and mentioned my earlier blog post.
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