First and Fourth Amendment Limits on National Security Letters
Congress’s passage of the Patriot Act after 9/11 expanded the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) information-gathering authority to issue national security letters (NSL). Without any judicial review, the FBI issues NSLs to telecommunications providers to obtain customer subscriber information, including sources of payment, records of Internet activity, addressees and subject lines of emails, websites visited, and search queries. Because a subscriber has voluntarily given the data to a third party, the NSL is not considered a “search” for Fourth Amendment purposes, under the so-called “third-party doctrine.” To overcome this constitutional shortcoming, commentators have argued that the chilling effect NSLs have on the exercise of free speech makes such investigations suspect under the First Amendment.
Despite the appeal of the First Amendment argument, this Note argues that a subscriber’s free speech claim against an NSL faces more significant doctrinal hurdles than scholars have recognized: The First Amendment does not directly protect privacy, making a chilling effect claim hard to sustain. Furthermore, the standard of review in First Amendment cases may be too deferential to the government because the Patriot Act does not directly target speech, only data related to communicative activity. Instead, this Note proposes statutory reform for more enhanced judicial review and considers how the First Amendment could be used, not as an independent challenge, but rather as a basis for modifying the third-party doctrine. The Note concludes that the concern for chilling free speech is valid, and although First Amendment doctrine may not provide the means to defeat an NSL, concern for free speech interests could provide courts with a rationale for finding a reasonable expectation of privacy in Internet data, thus strengthening our currently impoverished Fourth Amendment safeguards.