The Supreme Court ruled that federal agents can be sued for putting Muslim men on the no-fly list in alleged retaliation for their refusal to cooperate with counterterrorism investigations. The decision, which the Wall Street Journal called a rare expansion of personal liability for law-enforcement misconduct, brought together two different legal threads on the high court: a conservative push to expand protections for religious expression and the liberal interest in accountability for misconduct by law enforcement. Three Muslim men alleged that FBI agents pressured them to serve as informers on fellow Muslims. After they refused, the agents retaliated by placing them on the no-fly list, a secret roster of people U.S. authorities bar from boarding commercial aircraft over terrorism concerns.
Plaintiff Muhammad Tanvir is a lawful permanent resident whose wife and family remained in Pakistan. He said agents approached him in 2007 at his workplace in Bronx, N.Y., to ask about an acquaintance. Tanvir said he knew nothing useful and over three years declined repeated requests to gather information during his visits to Pakistan. Agents placed him on the no-fly list in 2010. The plaintiffs said informing on fellow Muslims would require deception in violation of their faith. They sued under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law that authorizes “appropriate relief” for those whose religious practices improperly are burdened by the federal government. The religious-freedom law authorizes lawsuits against “officials,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court, and similar phrasing in federal civil-rights laws has authorized liability for individual government employees. The decision means the lawsuit can proceed, but Thomas noted that the FBI agents can raise various defenses, including qualified immunity, a doctrine that has shielded police officers from liability for misconduct unless they knew they were violating “clearly established” rights.