The Tennessee branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit against the Memphis police, accusing the department of illegally surveilling Black Lives Matter activists.
The suit stems from the city's response last year to an open records request. When Memphis released the names of civilians who required a police escort during City Hall visits, several people on the list turned out to be activists who participated in "protests, rallies or other free speech activities in the city." The ACLU notes that many of these figures "had no criminal record or history of causing disturbances at City Hall." Nonetheless, individuals on the list could be escorted from certain properties and charged with criminal trespass if they return.
According to the lawsuit, the Memphis Police Department made the City Hall Escort List by tracking the social media posts of "local individuals or groups that were staging protests." Police Director Michael Rallings allegedly approved the list's creation in response to a 2016 "die-in" protest in front of the mayor's home. (No arrests were reported at the die-in.)
The lawsuit accuses officers of using activists' private Facebook posts to track their movements and meetings. Information including pictures, previous arrests, and connections with other activists were presented in weekly PowerPoint presentations. One of the weekly PowerPoints accused local activists of trying to use "legitimate community organizations to advance a radical agenda" and having an "expressed goal" to "embarrass law enforcement in order to undermine the bond between law enforcement and the community." The PowerPoint contained private social media posts and admitted to the use of undercover officers.
The police apparently followed activists' activities through a fake Facebook user account, accessed private social media communications, and placed undercover officers at meetings and events. All this, the ACLU argues, violates a 1978 consent decree that banned Memphis city officials from surveilling "constitutionally-protected political activities."
"Monitoring these public social media posts is simply good police work, which has allowed us to make operations plans to protect both demonstrators and counter-demonstrators, keeping everyone safe without violence," Rallings declared in a statement. According to The Appeal, he insists his "officers have never interfered with anyone lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights."
Rallings did not address the private communications in question.
That 1978 consent decree exists for good reason. "During the civil rights movement," the ACLU points out, "Memphis police engaged in the questionable practice of gathering domestic intelligence on demonstrators and activists in an attempt to intimidate people from exercising their right to free speech and assembly." Now as then, the city's cops are spying on nonviolent activists exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.