The American Civil Liberties Union and several Muslim and Arab groups have filed a lawsuit challenging the USA PATRIOT act of 2001, legislation passed in the aftermath of Sept. 11 to help the government fight terrorism.

“We’re only challenging Section 215 – it’s the provision that allows the FBI to obtain records and any tangible things from any recordholders,” ACLU legal director Michael Steinberg said.

Section 215 allows the government greater ability than in the past to seize records and information in terrorism investigations.

Steinberg said the suit, filed on Wednesday in the U.S. District Court in Detroit, is the first that has been filed against the PATRIOT act.

“We’ve been working on developing a case,” he said. “The climate for challenging the provision is much better now than it was closer to Sept. 11 and people are beginning to realize that the spying powers given to the FBI just went too far.”

Many Muslim and Arab groups say they fear they have been unfairly targeted by the government as a result of the act.

“We’ve been approached by numerous groups encouraging us to file the case because the provisions are having a chilling effect on people’s first amendment expression. There’s people among the Muslim and Arab community that fear that they’re being monitored and therefore do not visit certain websites or speak out on issues on which they feel strongly for fear the government’s watching – and that’s even though the activities are not related to terrorism in any way,” Steinberg said.

Nazih Hassan, president of the Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor, said in a written statement that he fears being a target of the FBI.

“Because of the relationship between MCA, its members and leaders, and persons and organizations investigated, questioned, detained, or arrested since Sept. 11th, we believe that the FBI has used or is currently using Section 215 to obtain records or personal belongings about our members and us,” he said.

Congressman John Dingell (D-Dearborn) said in a written statement that he supports the lawsuits against the PATRIOT Act.

“A court challenge to the Patriot Act is entirely proper and necessary. I am concerned that the hastily crafted law that passed the Congress threatens certain constitutional protections that all Americans have the right to rely upon,” he said.

General Attorney John Ashcroft said in a speech at the Office of Domestic Preparedness Conference that the PATRIOT Act has been misunderstood.

“The PATRIOT Act was a long overdue measure to close gaping holes in the government’s ability, responsibly and lawfully, to collect vital intelligence information on criminal terrorists. It updated the law to accommodate modern technology, such as cell phones and the Internet. It allows law enforcement investigators to use the same tools in terrorism that we have used for years in drug cases and organized crime cases,” he said.

Justice Department officials held a forum about the act at Wayne State University on the same day the ACLU filed its suit.

– Daily News Editor Andrew McCormack contributed to this article.

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