In a historic move for The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), the organization has filed an amicus brief with the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) to support the free-speech rights of Google and Microsoft. The July 15, 2013 action marks the first time RCFP has both filed with the FISA Court and backed the First Amendment interests of Internet companies.
The RCFP has provided free legal advice, resources, support, and advocacy to journalists for more than 40 years. It is joined in the brief by the following media companies: The Associated Press, Bloomberg L.P., Dow Jones & Company, Inc., Gannett Co., Inc., Los Angeles Times, The McClatchy Company, National Public Radio, Inc., The New York Times Company, The New Yorker; The Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC, Reuters America LLC, Tribune Company, and the Washington Post.
In June, both Microsoft and Google filed petitions with the FISA Court seeking permission to publish data on national security requests they received and which had been authorized by the court. The same month the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School filed a brief with the FISA Court requesting that it publish its opinions on the meaning, scope, and constitutionality of Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
That section authorizes the government to obtain “any tangible thing” relevant to foreign-intelligence or terrorism investigations. It was the legal basis for an April FISA Court order requiring Verizon to turn over “on an ongoing daily basis” to the National Security Agency all call logs “between the United States and abroad” or “wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.” The order was revealed by U.K.-based newspaper The Guardian in early June.
The amicus filing by RCFP and the coalition of news-media organizations supports the ACLU arguments that the court should release decisions that interpret the FISA laws and create binding precedent. However, the RCFP brief emphasizes a related point: that the public has a First Amendment right to know both about the secretive court’s core activities and receive information from Google and Microsoft. The brief describes the two companies as “speakers” with significant free-speech interests who want to provide the public with information about the government surveillance programs in which they have been required to participate.
“In addition to implicating their rights as speakers, the Google and Microsoft cases raise important concerns relating to the interests of the public in receiving information, an interest that the Supreme Court has long recognized as a separate component of the speech and press freedoms under the First Amendment,” the brief argues. “Where the communications providers are willing speakers, the public has a heightened interest in hearing their speech. That interest is heightened even more when the government is itself choosing to provide information to the public regarding issues central to the Google and Microsoft cases.”
The information Google and Microsoft want to share with the public is not prohibited by law, the media coalition states, and this information “will better explain the nature of their participation in these (government-surveillance) programs and correct popular misconceptions about the operation of key antiterrorism initiatives undertaken by the government.”
The brief continues that the issues raised in the petitions are vitally important to both national security and civil liberties: “They inevitably and rightfully are going to be the subject of public reporting and debate, and secrecy is preventing the public and the press from having even the rudimentary information needed for the kind of informed discussion that the country deserves.”