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American Civil Liberties Union v. Clapper

In Progress Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Electronic / Internet-based Communication
  • Date of Decision
    May 7, 2015
  • Outcome
    Remanded for Decision in Accordance with Ruling, Other
  • Case Number
    785 F.3d 787
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Appellate Court
  • Type of Law
    Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    National Security
  • Tags
    National Security Agency (NSA), Surveillance

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

Plaintiff-Appellants, the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”), appealed a district court’s decision, alleging that the collection of telephone metadata without a warrant violated the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.  The Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that Section 215 of the Patriot Act does not authorize the collection of mass telephone metadata.


Facts

Section 215 of the Patriot Act permits the government “to make an application for an order requiring the production of any tangible things… for an investigation to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a United States person or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.” The government’s application must include “a statement of facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the tangible things sought are relevant to an authorized investigation (other than a threat assessment) conducted in accordance with subsection (a)(2) of this section to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a United States person or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.” The FISC’s review of the government’s applications are usualy conducted in secret, ex parte proceedings. Under ss 215, for approximately 10 years, the government has been collecting telephone metadata.

In June 2013, the ACLU filed a lawsuit, alleging that the government’s collection of telephone metadata was unconstitutional under the First Amendment because it captures protected, associational and expressive activities, and the Fourth Amendment because is is an unreasonable search. In December 2013, the District Court granted the government’s motion to dismiss, and denied the Plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction. The District Court did not find that Section 215 was unconstitutional.

Plaintiff-Appellants appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in January 2014, claiming that the collection of the telephone metadata has a “chilling effect” on their First Amendment rights, as the use of the data can be used to decipher an individual’s associational and idealogical beliefs. The Second Circuit issued its Opinion in May 2015, vacating the District Court’s judgment dismissing the Plaintiff-Appellant’s complaint, and remanding the case back to the District Court.


Decision Overview

The Court held that the district court erred when it held that Section 215 authorized the government’s mass collection of telephone metadata. In its Opinion, the Second Circuit noted that Section 215 would expire in June 2015, and deferred to Congress in determining the scope of Section 215, and what is “reasonable” under the current political environment. In noting this, the Appeals Court also recognized that, depending on Congress’ actions, the decision could be moot and the constitutional issues raised could be altered. Because of this, the Court declined to discuss the Plaintiff-Appellant’s First Amendment claims.


Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

As of the date of this Opinion, this is the only appellate ruling on Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Thus, the decision is significant because it is the first to find that the government’s mass collection of telephone data – which has been occurring for almost a decade – goes beyond the scope of Section 215. The Opinion strongly criticizes the vastness of the government’s data collection, noting that the volume of data that the government has been collecting is staggering. Further, the Court strongly questioned the government’s expansive definition of “relevant,” praticularly when there is no specific request for information (as is normally the case in search warrants and obtaining private information of individuals).

Although the Court does not directly address the First Amendment or freedom of expression/association claims, the Court’s rejection of the government’s long-standing and far-reaching surveillance is, indeed, a breakthrough. By rejecting the telephone data collection, the Court is giving deference and weight to the ordinary citizen’s right to expression and association, recognizing the breadth of personal information that can be revealed in an individual’s telephone metadata.

Global Perspective

Quick Info

Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

General Law Notes

Nothing cited because the Court declined to address the Plaintiff-Appellant’s First Amendment claims.

Case Significance

Quick Info

Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

All district courts within the Second Circuit Court of Appeals are bound by the Court’s holding that the government’s collection of telephone metadata exceeds the scope of Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

The decision was cited in:

Official Case Documents

Official Case Documents:


Amicus Briefs and Other Legal Authorities

  • Wyden Amicus Brief in Support of Plaintiff-Appellants

    https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/assets/clapper-ca2-wyden-amicus.pdf
  • Pen American Amicus Brief in Support of Plaintiff-Appellants

    https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/assets/clapper-ca2-pen-american-amicus.pdf
  • Church Amicus Brief in Support of Plaintiff-Appellants

    https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/assets/clapper-ca2-church-amicus.pdf
  • Bar of the City of NY Amicus Brief in Support of Plaintiff-Appellants

    https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/assets/clapper-ca2-bar-of-city-of-ny-amicus.pdf
  • Computer and Data Science Expert Amicus Brief in Support of Plaintiff-Appellants

    https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/assets/clapper-ca2-computer-and-data-science-experts-amicus.pdf
  • Rutherford Amicus Brief in Support of Plaintiff-Appellants

    https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/assets/clapper-ca2-rutherford-amicus.pdf

  • Reports, Analysis, and News Articles:


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