Privacy SOS

Victory! Bradley Manning supporter will get his day in court

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Back on November 3, 2010, political activist and computer engineer David House ended his vacation with his girlfriend in Mexico, where they had been fishing and relaxing. House worked for MIT at the time, but he had a brief layover in Chicago before his flight back to Boston.

Unbeknownst to him, Department of Homeland Security officials were waiting for him at O'Hare airport. Those officials would intercept him at customs and proceed to strip him of all of his electronics. The agents asked him questions about his political activity, including his work to support Bradley Manning. Ultimately they sent him on his way, but not before they seized his computer, digital camera, phone, and USB drive.

House helped establish the Bradley Manning Support network, having known the young private briefly through the hacktivist community in Cambridge. He helped build and launch, organized rallies and protests, and has spoken out in national media about the plight of the accused whistleblower.

Apparently the federal government took an interest in House's First Amendment protected activity, and decided to use its broad warrantless search powers at the border to dig up information on him. 

Unfortunately, various courts have allowed unprecedented authority for government searches at the border. But the ACLU of Massachusetts believes that what happened to David House at O'Hare airport went beyond a security search meant to protect public safety by policing US borders. Indeed, it appears as if DHS agents used their freedom to warrantlessly search us at the border to pursue a political investigation that had absolutely nothing to do with protecting public safety.

So as the ACLU is wont to do when faced with official abuse, we sued the government alleging that DHS searched and interrogated House because of his political affiliations. The government sought a dismissal of our suit, arguing that it has the right to warrantlessly search anyone at the border for any reason or no reason at all. Thankfully, the judge didn't see it that way.

"This ruling affirms that the constitution is still alive at the U.S. border," said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, who argued the case along with John Reinstein of the ACLU of Massachusetts. "Despite the government's broad assertions that it can take and search any laptop, diary or smartphone without any reasonable suspicion, the court said the government cannot use that power to target political speech."

The case now goes on to the evidence-gathering stage, which will likely shed more light on exactly why the government was so interested in House's personal papers and effects. Stay tuned for more on this case.

Click here more information about warrantless border searches and the Constitution Free Zone. Click here for more information on the House case.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.