The New York Police Department reached a settlement with Muslim-owned businesses, mosques, student groups, and others it subjected to discriminatory and suspicionless surveillance.
As part of the settlement, businesses and mosques that were spied upon by the NYPD will receive damages for income lost as a result of the stigma and humiliation they suffered “for being targeted on the basis of their religion.”
The settlement marks the culmination of a lawsuit, Hassan v. City of New York, that was filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Muslim Advocates in 2012, following several Pulitzer Prize-winning reports from the Associated Press on surveillance against Muslim Americans by the NYPD. It was the first to challenge the department’s actions.
“The Hassan settlement exemplifies the power of coordinated legal action and community mobilization, and it cautions law enforcement everywhere to abandon identity-based policing in all its forms,” CCR senior staff attorney Omar Farah declared. “Attempting to predict criminality on the basis of race or religion is repugnant and it never works—except to humiliate and criminalize targeted communities.”
The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, Farhaj Hassan, stated, “We are proud that we stood up to the most powerful police force in the country and against the suspicion and ignorance that guided their discriminatory practices. We believe the legal rulings and settlement in this case will endure as part of a broader effort to hold this country to account for its stated commitment and its obligation to uphold religious liberty and equality.”
Hassan is a New Jersey resident and veteran of the war in Iraq. He attended three mosques that were targeted by NYPD surveillance: Masjid-e-Ali, Mehfile Shahe Khorasan, and the Imam-e-Zamana Foundation of North America.
Once he learned the mosques were subjected to surveillance, he developed a fear that his security clearance would be “jeopardized by being closely affiliated with mosques under surveillance by law enforcement.”
The settlement indicates Hassan was awarded $5,000 in damages.
Five thousand dollars was granted to the Muslim Students Association of the U.S. and Canada, Inc. The Muslim Foundation Inc. was awarded $5,000, All Body Shop Inside and Outside was awarded $10,000, the Unity Beef Sausage Company was awarded $15,000, and the Council of Imams in New Jersey was awarded $22,500.
The amounts may seem meager, but the settlement is an admission itself that the NYPD and city of New York were wrong to permit the police to deploy a “Demographics Unit” to conduct dragnet surveillance of Muslim communities.
In addition to damages awarded, NYPD officials are required under the settlement to attend a “public meeting with plaintiffs so they can express their concerns about the issues in the lawsuit directly to the NYPD commissioner or senior ranking official.”
There was never any guarantee the organizations and individuals targeted would win a settlement. Back in 2014, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit.
“The plaintiffs in this case have not alleged facts from which it can be plausibly inferred that they were targeted solely because of their religion,” Judge William Martini argued. “The more likely explanation for the surveillance was a desire to locate budding terrorist conspiracies.”
“The most obvious reason for so concluding is that surveillance of the Muslim community began just after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The police could not have monitored New Jersey for Muslim terrorist activities without monitoring the Muslim community itself.”
“The motive for the program was not solely to discriminate against Muslims, but rather to find Muslim terrorists hiding among ordinary, law-abiding Muslims,” Martini concluded.
A federal appeals court reinstated the lawsuit in 2015 and determined it raised “constitutional concerns that must be addressed, and if true, redressed.”
Citing the dissenting opinion from Justice Robert Jackson in the Korematsu decision, which granted the Executive Branch the authority to round up Japanese Americans and put them in internment camps, the court argued it was the court’s job to “apply only law” and to “abide by the Constitution, or [we] cease to be civil courts and become instruments of [police] policy.”
“What occurs here in one guise is not new,” the appeals court asserted. “We have been down similar roads before. Jewish Americans during the Red Scare, African Americans during the civil rights movement, and Japanese Americans during World War II are examples that readily spring to mind. We are left to wonder why we cannot see with foresight what we see so clearly with hindsight—that ‘[l]oyalty is a matter of the heart and mind[,] not race, creed, or color.'”
Not long after the appeals court decision, the city of New York entered into settlement negotiations.
In 2016, an earlier version of the settlement was rejected by a federal judge because the “proposed role and powers of the civilian representative” did not “furnish sufficient protection from potential violations of the constitutional rights of those law-abiding Muslims and believers in Islam who live, move and have their being in this city.”
Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, concluded, “The message to police departments from coast to coast is loud and clear: you cannot treat someone as a suspect based on their faith.”
“The plaintiffs are incredibly courageous Americans, who were willing to step forward and stand up for their rights and in turn the rights of all Americans. They follow in the path of Linda Brown, Rosa Parks, and other brave Americans who have fought systemic discrimination—and won.”