On Thursday, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of three Muslim men who said they were wrongly placed wrongly on a “no-fly” list. The men, all U.S. residents, went to court on the basis that the FBI put them on the government’s no-fly list for refusing to spy on U.S. Muslim communities and act as informants. All three men were allegedly placed on the list without evidence to prove that they threatened airline or passenger security. As a result of being on the list, not only were the three men’s reputations and employment statuses harmed, but they could not visit family in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen for a span of years.
The Supreme Court’s decision, the latest in a spate of rulings in favor of religious liberties, allows the men to sue the FBI agents for monetary damages under a federal law protecting religious exercise.
The 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act “permits litigants, when appropriate, to obtain money damages against federal officials in their individual capacities,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote. According to Reuters, while the law does not specify the type of relief, the court held that monetary damages were appropriate here.
The case began in 2013 with plaintiffs Muhammad Tanvir and Jameel Algibhah from New York and Naveed Shinwari from Connecticut. The men alleged that they were put on the no-fly list after repeatedly refusing to spy on religious communities because they believed that would violate their beliefs. According to the men’s attorney, Ramzi Kasseem, each of the men on separate occasions answered agents’ questions truthfully after being approached, but decided “none wanted to serve as an informant on his Muslim community, in part because to do so violated his religious beliefs.”
“Rather than accepting that refusal, the FBI agents persisted — in some instances threatening individual Respondents with deportation and arrest and in other instances offering financial incentives and assistance with family members’ immigration to the United States,” Kassem wrote in the court papers. “In each case, the agents relied upon what they assumed would be the irresistible coercion of the No Fly List,” he added.
Years after the lawsuit was filed, the Department of Homeland Security removed their names and told the men that there was “no reason” why the three could no longer take flights, CNBC reported. However, the three continued to press for financial damages because they had been “prohibited from flying, sometimes when they were headed to visit loved ones or to start a new job, or on their way home from a trip abroad, stranding them overseas.”
While the initial case was thrown out by a trial judge in 2016 on the basis that the men couldn’t sue individual FBI agents in a personal capacity, a Manhattan-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived the case in 2018, ruling that federal law allows individual federal officers to be sued for damages. This progressed to the Supreme Court after an appeal in which the Justice Department claimed that if the ruling were to stand, countless lawsuits against federal employees would deter them from doing their work. The employees listed in this statement included national security officials, criminal investigators, and correctional officers.
According to The Hill, the no-fly list, which was established before the Sept. 11 attacks, is a federal watchlist designed to prohibit air travel to, from, and over the U.S. by suspected terrorists. Over the years the list has expanded significantly, with more than 80,000 names listed. Civil rights groups have repeatedly sued the government over the list due to the innocent names that have been included. While the ruling of this case is a win for these groups, unfortunately, not all the people on this blacklist are able to sue as they are not U.S. citizens like the three men in this case.
All three men had different but traumatizing situations that were detailed in the case. The lead plaintiff in the case, Tanvir, was working as a long-distance truck driver in New York, a job that required him to fly home after driving long distances, when he learned he was on the list in 2010. During this time, he was refused entry to a flight in Atlanta. FBI agents then drove him to a bus station instead and had him complete a 24-hour journey home. Not only did being on the list cost Tanvir his job because he was unable to fly home after long-distances, but he was also unable to visit his ill mother in Pakistan for years. The other two men shared similar stories of being unable to work efficiently because their jobs required traveling.
The victory served as not only a civil rights milestone but as relief for the men who experienced this trauma. While money cannot change the experiences they’ve had, such a victory can help others who follow.
“It is a soaring feeling,” Tanvir said in a statement released by the Center for Constitutional Rights. “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.”
Shinwari, a manufacturing contractor who came to the U.S. with his father from Afghanistan when he was 14, expressed similar joy. His name on the no-fly list not only prevented him from doing his work, but from visiting his wife who was in Afghanistan at the time.
“I feel extremely happy and content. All praise belongs to Allah. This is a great victory for every voiceless Muslim and non-Muslim against hate and oppression and … I hope that this is a warning to [the] FBI and other agencies that they will be held responsible for … traumatizing people and ruining their lives,” Shinwari told NPR.
Kassem, who also serves as a professor at The City University of New York School of Law, noted the courage of the three men for standing up for their religious freedom, adding: “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.”
Government agents, no matter at what level, must be held accountable for their actions. Racism and discrimination on any basis should not and cannot be tolerated any longer in the U.S. “Today’s unanimous #SCOTUS decision is a victory for American Muslims and all people of faith,” the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said in a statement posted to Twitter. “We can, should and must continue to hold government agents fully responsible for engaging in religious discrimination.”