For NY lawyer, a 45-year-old surveillance case is her legacy

AP News
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Posted: May 28, 2016 3:23 PM
For NY lawyer, a 45-year-old surveillance case is her legacy

NEW YORK (AP) — Barbara Handschu barely gave it a thought 45 years ago when she was listed first among plaintiffs in a Vietnam-era lawsuit challenging how New York City police officers conducted surveillance of political activities.

"It was a joke. They put me first," she recalls, chuckling. "I don't think they thought I'd be the one person they'd get in touch with for all these decades."

Then, she was a plucky, young activist lawyer. Now, she's a plucky 73-year-old divorce lawyer proud of her place in the fight against illegal surveillance with a name destined to live on long after she's gone.

That lawsuit with her name on top led to a consent decree and what became known as the "Handschu Guidelines," restricting how the city conducts surveillance.

Those guidelines have evolved. Rules were relaxed after the Sept. 11 attacks to let police more freely monitor political activity in public places. Now, they are being tightened to respond to outrage fueled by revelations that the NYPD was monitoring places where Muslims eat, study and worship. The city maintains it has always carried out surveillance probes legally.

"It's a delicate balance between dealing with terrorism and spying on people or intruding on people's lives when they're doing otherwise legal activities," said Handschu, who plans to return to Manhattan federal court on June 1 to attend a hearing on the latest rewrite of guidelines.

Attorney Martin R. Stolar, who helped choose Handschu as lead plaintiff, said she has no more standing than any plaintiff but that U.S. District Judge Charles S. Haight has always shown her deference, inviting her to sit with lawyers.

"Her name is well-known, both outside the police department and within the police department. Plus she's had a remarkable career," he said.

Handschu marvels at the courage of young Muslim women who spoke at an earlier hearing about fearing repercussions for going to a mosque or sharing views on a college campus.

"They're the people who need protection. I felt bad for them," she said. "If you do constitutionally protected activities, no one should be scared of it."

In an interview with The Associated Press in her midtown Manhattan apartment, Handschu recalled becoming a target of the government after the lawsuit was filed in 1971 by the National Lawyers Guild.

That same year she learned the FBI had wiretapped her phone. In those days, she attended dozens of protests over the hot issues — Vietnam, race, women's rights. She recalls being terrified at a bloody Wall Street rally when construction workers supporting the Vietnam War went after war protesters. She sometimes wore a bicycle helmet for safety.

Years later, she used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain mostly blacked-out pages of her 2-inch-thick FBI report.

Handschu says her instincts for activism were stoked by the nation's involvement in Vietnam and the civil rights movement.

She finished her bachelor's degree in 2½ years at New York University before heading to the University of Michigan's law school, where 350 law students included six women.

Once a lawyer, Handschu joined a committee of attorneys representing inmates charged in a September 1971 riot at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York after 10 hostages and 29 inmates were killed.

That work took her to Buffalo, where she made her home for decades, slowly transitioning to divorce and custody law.

Three years ago, she returned full-time to New York City, where she does some legal work and tries to make it annually to the New York Mets opening day.

She no longer worries anyone is surveilling her.

"I just became uninteresting to the authorities," Handschu said. "Right now I don't scare the government unless they're worried about changing custody laws."

Handschu said the latest rewrite of the guidelines is far from perfect, since there will be only one civilian among a dozen police employees reviewing surveillance probes. That person could complain to the city and ultimately the court.

"It would take a very brave, very strong kind of person to do that," she said.

Like Handschu?

"Gee, I would be honored," she said before concluding her expertise was better suited for custody fights. "If it's a question of where a child should go, I'd be very comfortable in a room with 11 other people."

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This story has been corrected to show that the 1971 lawsuit challenged illegal surveillance of political activities, not police activities.