December 10, 2020, Washington, D.C. – Today, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that American Muslims who were placed or kept on the No-Fly List in retaliation for refusing to spy on their communities may sue individual FBI agents for interfering with their freedom to practice their religion. The men initially sued to be removed from the List. After years of being prevented from flying, and just days before the first major hearing in the case, the defendants issued each man a letter informing them they were no longer on the List. A judge then dismissed the remaining portion of their lawsuit, which sought damages for the emotional and financial harm the men had suffered, but a federal appeals court reinstated the case. The Trump administration appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled today that the men may sue for damages.
“It is a soaring feeling,” said lead plaintiff Muhammad Tanvir. “I made my life in this country, so this is important not just for me, but for everybody. I don’t want the same thing that the FBI did to me to happen to others.”
After repeatedly refusing FBI requests to spy on their Muslim communities — among other things, to visit online Islamic forums or attend certain mosques and “act extremist” — and after years of flying without incident, Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah, Naveed Shinwari, and a fourth man who did not join in the appeal discovered they were not permitted to board flights. FBI agents told each man he would be able to get off the No-Fly List if he agreed to work for the FBI. The FBI's focus on the men had nothing to do with any criminal investigation.
The men argued that the FBI agents abused the List, placing them on it not because they posed any threat to aviation security, but in order to coerce them into being informants on their communities, thereby violating their religious rights. The case was brought under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and other statutes. The men and their attorneys say it is not enough simply to remove the men from the List; they say accountability for abuses by FBI agents is necessary to prevent those abuses from happening again.
According to the unanimous decision, “A damages remedy is not just ‘appropriate’ relief as viewed through the lens of suits against Government employees. It is also the only form of relief that can remedy some RFRA violations. For certain injuries, such as respondents’ wasted plane tickets, effective relief consists of damages, not an injunction.”
“The Supreme Court today vindicated our clients’ courageous stand for their religious freedom as Muslims who would not spy on their own faith community,” said Ramzi Kassem, Professor of Law and Director of the CLEAR (Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility) Clinic at CUNY School of Law, who argued the case before the Court. “The Court’s unanimous decision also sends a clear message to FBI agents who should think twice now before abusing the power to put people on the No-Fly List.”
As a result of their placement on the No-Fly List, for years the men were unable to see spouses, children, sick parents, and elderly grandparents who are overseas. They lost jobs, were stigmatized within their communities, and suffered severe financial and emotional distress.
Said Baher Azmy, Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, “We are gratified that our clients’ brave fight for recognition and accountability for these abuses of law enforcement power can continue in the courts. This decision sends a message that the FBI cannot continue to assume they can act with impunity in surveilling, harassing, and punishing the Muslim community, and other vulnerable communities federal law enforcement entities seek to target.”
Advocates say the FBI’s abusive behavior in this case is just one example of the profiling, targeting, and harassment of Muslims by law enforcement and other government officials, which also includes extensive surveillance and infiltration of their religious communities and spaces, including mosques; holds on immigration status and other benefits; and the Muslim Ban.
“Today’s decision is a victory for religious communities against improper government intrusion,” said Jennifer R. Cowan, Pro Bono Counsel at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, “and it is the result of our clients’ determination to stand up for their rights. We look forward to continuing this fight in the district court.”
Tanvir v. Tanzin was brought by the CLEAR Project, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and co-counsel at the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP.
The CLEAR project (Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility) is based out of Main Street Legal Services, Inc., the clinical arm of CUNY School of Law. CLEAR’s mandate is to serve Muslim and all other clients, communities, and movements in the New York City area and beyond that are targeted by local, state, or federal government agencies under the guise of national security and counterterrorism.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.