Gun advocates in California have joined Christian and Muslim groups in a lawsuit challenging on First Amendment grounds the large-scale data collection efforts exposed by National Security Agency leaker Edward J. Snowden.
The 19 plaintiffs, led by the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, include the Calguns Foundation, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
In the case, brought by lawyers from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the groups argue that the NSA’s recently program of collecting the telephone records of all Americans and keeping them for five years violates their First Amendment right of association.
The case, said EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn, is based on what she called “a basic legal proposition” established by the Supreme Court in 1958: that if citizens know the government will be aware of their membership of a group, they are less likely to join — particularly if the group is taking a controversial stand.
U.S. officials, who reluctantly acknowledged the program after Mr. Snowden published internal NSA documents about it, say the content of calls is not recorded — only the origin and destination numbers and the time and duration of calls.
But, Ms. Cohen argued, this so-called metadata, “especially when collected in bulk and aggregated, allows the government to learn and track the associations of these organizations and their members.”
The First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles was founded in 1877 by a suffragist and “has a proud history of working for justice and protecting people in jeopardy for expressing their political views,” said its pastor, Rev. Rick Hoyt. “In the 1950s, we resisted the McCarthy hysteria and supported blacklisted Hollywood writers and actors,” he said. “The principles of our faith often require our church to take bold stands on controversial issues.”
Gene Hoffman, the chairman of the Calguns Foundation, said that “California gun owners are, shall we say, understandably paranoid” about the idea that government agencies might be recording the number, destination and duration of their phone calls — even if they weren’t actually listening in.
California’s “gun laws are relatively byzantine and intricate,” he said, so Calgun Foundation had “set up a hotline for people who get in trouble through their lawful ownership of firearms or who have questions about whether something they are going to do might be prohibited.”
“The stereotype of gun-owners being paranoid turned out to be true,” he said, noting that “people were turning to our hotline and using the phone specifically because they didn’t want to have a record created.”
The 1958 Supreme Court case NAACP vs. Alabama barred the state government from compelling disclosure of the NAACP’s membership list because of its chilling effect on free association.
“Telephone records, especially complete records collected over many years, are even more invasive than membership lists, since they show casual or repeated inquiries as well as full membership,” said Ms. Cohn.
Mr. Hoffman agreed, noting that — in the case of callers to the Calguns hotline — it was the potential for cross-referencing that most alarmed people.
California law bans medical marijuana patients from gun ownership, for instance, so “if you were known to have phoned both us and NORML, it could cause people to ask questions questions you really didn’t want to be asked,” he said.