The Wikimedia Foundation, Amnesty International and a host of civil rights groups sued the National Security Agency and the US Department of Justice on Tuesday challenging the mass surveillance programme uncovered by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

“We’re filing suit today on behalf of our readers and editors everywhere,” said Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, in a statement on Wikimedia’s blog. “Surveillance erodes the original promise of the internet: an open space for collaboration and experimentation, and a place free from fear.”

According to the lawsuit, the NSA’s mass surveillance of internet traffic in the United States violates the US constitution’s first amendment, which protects freedom of speech and association, and the fourth amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

Filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the US district court in Maryland the suit names the attorney general, Eric Holder, director of intelligence, James Clapper and NSA director, Michael Rogers, as well as their respective offices.

The lawsuit challenges the “suspicionless seizure and searching of internet traffic” by the NSA in the US that it says is done by “tapping directly into the internet backbone inside the United States – the network of high-capacity cables, switches, and routers that today carry vast numbers of Americans’ communications with each other and with the rest of the world.”

The NSA’s so-called “Upstream” surveillance scheme – first revealed by the Guardian and the Washington Post – is designed to capture communications with “non-US persons” to acquire foreign intelligence information. But in the course of this surveillance, “the NSA is seizing Americans’ communications en masse”, says the court filing.

The suit, also backed by Human Rights Watch, writers’ group PEN, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, argues the NSA’s actions impede their constitutional right to “exchange information in confidence, free from warrantless government monitoring” and exceeds the authority given to the government bodies by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

“PEN’s research shows that fears surrounding NSA surveillance have driven writers in both the US and abroad to curtail what they write, in every medium from emails to novels to social media,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN American Center. “Upstream and other NSA programs that comb through private correspondence are fueling widespread self-censorship, eroding the foundations of privacy and confidentiality necessary for free expression to flourish.”

“By tapping the backbone of the internet, the NSA is straining the backbone of democracy,” Lila Tretikov, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation wrote in a blog post.

“Wikipedia is founded on the freedoms of expression, inquiry, and information. By violating our users’ privacy, the NSA is threatening the intellectual freedom that is central to people’s ability to create and understand knowledge.”

ACLU, PEN and others have previously challenged the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping programme. The supreme court dismissed that case, Clapper v Amnesty, in February 2013, months before Snowden’s revelation. The justices rejected the case in a 5-4 vote on grounds that the plaintiffs had failed to prove that they had been subject to spying and were “based too much on speculation”.