Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Supreme Court Says Muslim Men Can Sue FBI Agents In No-Fly List Case

Alex Brandon

Updated at 2:43 p.m. ET

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, ruled Thursday that Muslims put on the no-fly list after refusing to act as informants can sue federal officials for money damages under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The case – Tanzin v. Tanvir — involved three Muslim men who said their religious freedom rights were violated when FBI agents tried to use the no-fly list to force them into becoming informants.

Ramzi Kassen, the lawyer representing the thee men, explained that the no-fly list is problematic because it combines "tremendous power with a near total lack of transparency," empowering the FBI to use it as coercive force.

None of the men was suspected of illegal activity, and indeed the Obama administration tried to head off the suit by removing their names from the no-fly list just days before the case first went to court. It didn't work. The men refused to drop their case, and on Thursday the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in their favor.

"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," said Naveed Shinwari, one of the three men involved in the case.

Shinwari, a manufacturing contractor who came to the U.S. with his father from Afghanistan when he was 14, is a legal permanent resident. His presence on the no-fly list, he said, meant he could not do his contracting job because it required travel within the United States. Nor could he visit his wife in Afghanistan. She is, however, now is in U.S., and the couple have three young children, two of them born in this country.

Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas noted that money damages have long been authorized in American law, dating back to the founding of the republic. And he pointed specifically to a post-Civil War statute that provides for damages against government officials who act "under color of state law" to deprive people of their constitutional rights. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, enacted in 1993, is in that tradition and uses the same terminology, he observed.

Thomas acknowledged that Congress is free to shield government agents from suit, but "[w]e cannot manufacture" such a presumption 27 years later.

This is not the end of the line in the case. The three men now have the right to sue, but the government may wish to settle the case out of court, or in the alternative, it could invoke the doctrine of qualified immunity, and assert that the agents are immune from suit because they had no way of knowing their conduct would be illegal at the time.

Attorneys for the three men contend that though some 80,000 individuals have been placed on the no-fly list, there will be no flood of lawsuits stemming from Thursday's decision because the vast majority of those on the list are residents of another country, unlike the three men who brought this case.

While the court's decision was unanimous, it was heard before Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed as the newest justice, and she did not participate in the ruling.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.