PHILADELPHIA (CBSNewYork/AP) -- A federal appeals court on Tuesday reinstated a lawsuit challenging the NYPD's surveillance of Muslim groups in New Jersey following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, saying any resulting harm came from the city's tactics, not the media's reporting of them.
The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals found the Muslim plaintiffs raised sufficient allegations of equal-protection violations and reversed a judge's decision last year to dismiss the case.
U.S. District Judge William Martini had concluded the police could not keep watch "on Muslim terrorist activities without monitoring the Muslim community itself" and concurred with the city in blaming reporting by The Associated Press, which exposed the surveillance program, for any harm.
A three-judge appellate panel rejected those findings, comparing the NYPD's alleged practices to blanket scrutiny of Japanese-Americans during World War II and blacks during the civil rights movement.
They said the attempt to blame the AP was akin to saying, "What you don't know can't hurt you. And, if you do know, don't shoot us. Shoot the messenger.''
The lawsuit was among legal actions that followed reports by the AP that revealed how city police infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques and otherwise spied on Muslims as part of a broad effort to prevent terrorist attacks. The reporting was honored with a Pulitzer Prize.
"The court reaffirmed the elementary principle that law enforcement cannot spy on and harass individuals for no other reason than their religion and the equally important principle that courts cannot simply accept untested claims about national security to justify a gross stereotype about Muslims. There is no Muslim exception to the Constitution," Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said in a news release following the ruling.
Azmy told 1010 WINS the decision gives a voice to Muslims.
"This decision should be heartening to the Muslim community, who is standing up for their right to equal dignity and respect in this country," he said.
"Today is a good day for the civil rights of all Americans," added Muslim Advocates Legal Director Glenn Katon. "The court agreed that American Muslims cannot be treated like second class citizens by police because of their faith."
In a statement Tuesday, a spokesman for the city Law Department said it was reviewing the decision.
"We are reviewing the decision, which sends the case back to the lower court to determine whether the plaintiffs' allegations are true. At this stage, the issue is whether the NYPD in fact surveilled individuals and businesses solely because they are Muslim, something the NYPD has never condoned. Stigmatizing a group based on its religion is contrary to our values," the statement said.
NYPD Deputy Commissioner Legal Matters Larry Byrne told WCBS 880's Rich Lamb the court hasn't found that the department did anything wrong.
"So the suit will proceed. We will defend against it vigorously. There's been no finding by the court that the NYPD did anything wrong or anything illegal," he said.
The city has called the intelligence gathering an appropriate and legal anti-terrorism tactic. Although a senior NYPD official testified in 2012 that the demographics unit at the heart of the program never generated any leads or triggered a terrorism investigation, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and other officials said the surveillance helped the nation's largest police department identify and thwart terror plots.
Current police Commissioner Bill Bratton disbanded the unit last year and reassigned its detectives.
During oral arguments in January, the appellate panel questioned whether police had any specific leads to justify surveillance of Muslim businesses, mosques and student groups in New Jersey from 2002 to at least 2012.
The Muslim plaintiffs -- including an Iraq War veteran, a grade school principal and members of the Muslim Student Association at Rutgers University -- wanted the lawsuit revived in part so they could learn more about the program.
The city's lawyer, Peter Farrell of the New York City Law Department, then called any injuries suffered by Muslims "self-imposed, based on subjective fears" that may have led them to avoid gathering with other Muslims after the attacks. And he said the plaintiffs couldn't simply infer the intent of the program was discriminatory.
In a related lawsuit in Brooklyn, New York has reached a tentative settlement with a group of Muslims, but the parties have asked the court to postpone approval until next month while they iron out final details.
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