Shalom Center Sues NSA: Stop Invading Americans’ Phone Calls!

The Shalom Center has joined 21 other religious and political organizations in a lawsuit against the National Security Agency.

Among other plaintiffs are People for the American Way, Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch, several pro-gun groups, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and the Council On American Islamic Relations  -- California chapter. (The full list is at the end of this report.)

As you can see, on many issues – religion, politics, philosophy, strategy, tactics -- we strongly disagree with each other. But we all agree that the government’s actions that we’re suing about -- the swallow-it-all collection of telephone records -- is illegal, is destructive, and should be stopped.

The case, filed in Federal District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco, is titled “First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA.”  The lawyerly work is being done by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. EFF (founded 1990) is the leading organization protecting civil liberties in the digital world. See

Why did The Shalom Center decide to join in this suit?

There are four reasons:

  • Jewish religious tradition about the privacy of people as members of a free society;
  • The Constitution of the United States – especially the Bill of Rights: the First Amendment protecting freedoms of speech, press, association, and religion, and the Fourth Amendment, protecting private communications from government intrusion absent a valid search warrant;
  • My own personal experience during the 1960s and ‘70s with shocking illegal actions by the FBI attacking me and other activists who joined in the struggles against racism and against the Vietnam War.
  • Déjà vu.  The nasty past is becoming nastier prologue.

First, Torah:  When the shaman Balaam refused to obey King Balak’s order to place a curse upon the newly-freed runaway slaves who were the People of Israel in the Wilderness, Balaam sang, “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob –-- Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov.

The ancient Rabbis taught that the tents were so beautiful because they stood at angles to each other –-- no one family could peer into another’s tent, nor could King Balak. Each family was entitled to its privacy.  

Since the ancient Rabbis were living under the Roman Empire and its secret police, they may have been especially sensitive to the threat of governmental intrusion into the privacy of a free community. Perhaps they even felt that King Balak ordered a crursing of these newly free former slaves precisely because he and his henchmen were not able to peer into their private lives.

Balaam’s chant is still so revered today that it begins traditional Jewish prayer services!

The Constitution: Our goal is to highlight one of the most important ways that the government  collection of telephone records is unconstitutional: it violates the First Amendment right of association.

When the government gets access to the phone records of political and activist organizations and their members, it knows who is talking to whom, when and for how long. This so-called “metadata,” especially when collected in bulk and aggregated, allows the government to track the associations of these organizations.

 The Supreme Court ruled in 1958 that “Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.” (NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. at 462. )

My own personal history:  I was one of nine activists in Washington DC who discovered that between 1968 and 1974 we had been subjected to COINTELPRO activity (warrantless searches, theft, forgery, and more) by the FBI. 

So we sued the FBI – and won.

We sued for deprivation of our Constitutional “right of the people peaceably to assemble.”  We won a jury verdict, with strong support from the judge, in DC Federal District Court. When the FBI appealed, a unanimous DC Circuit Court of Appeals  upheld our case. (Even Antonin Scalia, then Circuit Court Judge and  now a Supreme Court Justice rarely known as a defender of civil liberties, joined in the decision.)

The case was so important that it became a vital chapter in a book by Caroline Kennedy and Ellen Alderman about the meaning of the Bill of Rights in everyday life: In Our Defense.  You can read the chapter at

and more about our case at

And -- Déjà vu: Having gone through that ordeal, I was very troubled when in June, The Guardian newspaper published a secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) that authorized the wholesale collection of phone records of all Verizon customers, including the numbers involved in each call, the time and duration of the call, and "other identifying information."

Government officials subsequently confirmed the document's authenticity and acknowledged the order was just one of a series issued on a rolling basis since at least 2006.

As the revelations continued, I realized that The Shalom Center might well be under illegitimate, unConstitutional surveillance because of our entirely legal and nonviolent active opposition to US government actions in regard to the Iraq War, the Patriot Act’s subversion of many civil liberties, major ethical and practical blunders in the Middle East, and the failure to face down corporate power that led to the Great Recession and to the Climate Crisis.

I certainly felt what people call “the chilling effect” of realizing we might be under totally unwarranted surveillance. I don’t believe The Shalom Center and I have backed off any of our values, commitments, or activism. But I do recall sleepless nights, rethinking some essays and blogs and actions before deciding to go ahead with them.

I have often said and written that the climate crisis –-  a profound crisis in our planet’s Breath of Life itself, a crisis in YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh , a crisis in the very breath-filled Name of God -– is the most important issue we face today.

AND – the only way we can freely challenge our government and its corporate cousins to meet that crisis is for us to be free to join together.

To assemble, to associate. Without fear. Without “chilling effect.”

That is what our lawsuit aims to achieve.

We are doing this on behalf of our members, our readers, our phone-callers --- YOU. US.

This lawsuit costs money.

Like all our other work, our pursuit of justice and peace, our teaching Torah from a 22d-century standpoint, our Interfaith Pilgrimages to Capitol Hill, our celebrating the festivals in old/new ways to heal the Earth, our connecting Elders and Youngers to share the work of transforming the world --  all of it costs money.

All of it, all of it --  costs money. We need your help to do it.

Please contribute NOW  by clicking here --


The plaintiffs are:

 First Unitarian Church Of Los Angeles;

Acorn Active Media;

Bill Of Rights Defense Committee;

Calguns Foundation, Inc.;

California Association Of Federal Firearms Licensees, Inc.;

Charity And Security Network;

 Council On American Islamic Relations  -- California, Ohio & Foundation,

 Franklin Armory;

Free Press;

Free Software Foundation;

Greenpeace, Inc.;

Human Rights Watch;

Media Alliance;

National Lawyers Guild;

National Organization For The Reform Of

Marijuana Laws, California Chapter;

Patient Privacy Rights;

People For The American Way;

Public Knowledge;

The Shalom Center;

Students For Sensible Drug Policy;


Unitarian Universalist Service Committee

 Who are the defendants? The NSA, the FBI, and several specific officials of them.  



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