SAN FRANCISCO - A federal judge has ruled that the FBI's practice of issuing so-called national security letters to banks, phone companies and other businesses is unconstitutional, saying the secretive demands for customer data violate the First Amendment.
The FBI almost always bars recipients of the letters from disclosing to anyone - including customers - that they have even received the demands, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston said in the ruling released Friday. The government has failed to show that the letters and the blanket non-disclosure policy "serve the compelling need of national security," and the gag order creates "too large a danger that speech is being unnecessarily restricted," the San Francisco-based Illston wrote.
FBI counter-terrorism agents began issuing the letters, which don't require a judge's approval, after Congress passed the USA Patriot Act.
The case arises from a lawsuit that lawyers with the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed in 2011 on behalf of an unnamed telecommunications company that received an FBI demand for customer information. "We are very pleased that the court recognized the fatal constitutional shortcomings of the NSL statute," EFF lawyer Matt Zimmerman said. "The government's gags have truncated the public debate on these controversial surveillance tools. Our client looks forward to the day when it can publicly discuss its experience."