In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee (ACLU-TN) sued the city of Memphis, alleging that its police department (MPD) had conducted intensive surveillance of local activists, including several members of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, who had participated in protests and demonstrations. ACLU-TN argued that such intelligence gathering on individuals’ exercise of their First Amendment rights threatened their Free Speech. U.S. District Court Judge Jon McCalla, who was nominated to the bench by Republican President George H. W. Bush in 1991, ruled in favor of ACLU-TN on October 26, 2018, citing several clear examples of what he regarded as MPD’s improper surveillance of activists.
Memphis law enforcement has long been accused of using surveillance of activists as a tool of intimidation. Throughout the civil rights movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s, MPD allegedly gathered intelligence on protesters and activists and used that information to dissuade them from their advocacy, according to ACLU-TN. These methods effectively chilled activists’ Free Speech through fear.
In 1976, ACLU-TN had sued the city of Memphis, leading to a 1978 court order that barred the use of domestic intelligence to monitor individuals’ exercise of their First Amendment rights, a landmark decision at the time.
Four decades later, in 2017, the ACLU-TN brought a federal lawsuit claiming that MPD had resumed conducting surveillance against activists, including several in Black Lives Matter. The suit arose after documents were published revealing the city’s list of people who required a police escort at City Hall — many of whom had no criminal record, but had participated in demonstrations in the past, according to ACLU-TN. The lawsuit unearthed a plethora of information about the city’s habit of surveilling activists, the very practice that had been banned by the 1978 ruling.
Documents released in July 2018 showed how the MPD’s Office of Homeland Security used social media to track BLM activists. In one example, MPD developed a fake Facebook profile to befriend activists on the social media platform — allowing the police to gather both public and private posts from them, according to The Appeal, a nonprofit outlet that focuses on criminal justice.
The case also uncovered a PowerPoint presentation identifying the BLM activists who had gathered for a vigil to honor a Memphis teenager shot by the police: The presentation, which was circulated among MPD command staff, included the names and pictures of the activists and details of their arrests at the vigil. It also linked the activists to radical leftist groups, according to The Appeal. In a deposition, the officer who compiled the presentation said he also tracked the activists’ associations and contacts, including at least one activist’s spouse, The Appeal reported.
“The public has a right to know about government practices,” ACLU-TN Executive Director Hedy Weinberg told The Appeal. MPD Director of Police Services Michael W. Rallings maintained the department’s innocence, saying that his “officers have never interfered with anyone lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.”
In an August 2018 hearing, the city argued that the 1978 decree needed updating to reflect technological advances, according to WREG, a local CBS affiliate.
ACLU of Tennessee wins suit against Memphis Police Department
Early hearings for the case established that MPD’s actions constituted “political intelligence,” thus violating the 1978 ruling that surveillance could curtail individuals’ First Amendment rights.
McCalla said that ACLU-TN presented “clear and convincing” evidence that MPD had violated the 1978 order barring political intelligence, and ordered the city to revise its regulations and enhance its training for officers, according to the Los Angeles Times. ACLU-TN reported that the court imposed sanctions to ensure MPD compliance with the 1978 decree, including revising their policy on political intelligence, training officers, and establishing lists and written guidelines for social media searches. The court also appointed an independent monitor to supervise the implementation of these sanctions.
Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20
Uploaded November 26, 2018