ACLU Accuses Memphis Police of Monitoring the Private Communications of Black Lives Matter Activists

Domestic surveillance in Tennessee.


|||Austin McAfee/ZUMA Press/Newscom
Austin McAfee/ZUMA Press/Newscom

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.

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  1. If they are posting on face book then its not private therefore its okay to monitor face book. note who ever is monitoring facebook posts was given permission by the poster to monitor

    1. Note, police who monitor Facebook to gain information about lawful demonstrations are authoritarians regardless of the practice’s legality.

      Point taken, nonetheless

      1. It’s not like any of these demonstrations have ever turned violent or resulted in property damage.

        Even if their job was just peace keeping without the rest of it, making sure they had adequate resources available for potential trouble spots would still be their job. How they choose to go about doing it is a whole other thing.

        1. Knowing when the demonstration is going to occur is public information, but spying on the leadership is a bit far, despite whether or not it’s legal

    2. The article seemed to imply that they created a fake FB account in order to monitor “private” posts (is that a thing?) – in other words it sounds like they were trying to infiltrate BLM. Naughty, naughty.

      1. I’m going to have to plead ignorance. I know very little about Facebook besides the fact that people talk too much about themselves nowadays

        1. Well, I know you can restrict the viewing of posts to “friends”. The article doesn’t mention anything about FB chat, which might be something I would reasonably assume to be private, so I guess that’s not at issue. So that leaves the question of whether posts that are restricted to your circle of friends are really “private”. I think a court would have to answer that.

          1. Also, you can have private groups whose posts are only visible to members.
            The article also says that they sent secret police to meetings to monitor people.

            It’s basically a local, updated version of COINTELPRO, infiltrating and disrupting political movements.

            1. Now do the IRS

              1. They do nothing of the sort. Next?

                1. Selective civil libertarians are a joke

                  1. I don’t like paying my taxes either. However, I don’t see the IRS as particularly violative of rights. There may be mistakes here and there, but it’s hardly like the NSA or FBI or many local police departments.

                    1. Happy Chandler|7.27.18 @ 4:01PM|#
                      “I don’t like paying my taxes either. However, I don’t see the IRS as particularly violative of rights.”

                      I guess all that IRS ‘stuff’ went right over your head, since you aren’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.
                      Or, more likely, you are a fucking lefty ignoramus lying at every chance you get.

      2. Imply? It explicitly said they used a fake account.

        1. Which begs the question: what is a “fake” account? I know people with more than one FB account. AFAIK there is no requirement to be a “real” person.

          1. I have one that I built to monitor a bunch of City Event pages.

          2. You should probably read this before you sign up then:

            1. Who can use Facebook
            When people stand behind their opinions and actions, our community is safer and more accountable. For that reason, you must:

            – Use the same name that you use in everyday life.
            – Provide accurate information about yourself.
            – Create only one account (your own) and use your timeline for personal purposes.
            – Not share your password, give access to your Facebook account to others, or transfer your account to anyone else (without our permission).

            1. you must:

              Or else they’ll kick me out? Oh noes!

          3. An account run by police that pretends to be a member of the community.
            Kind of like the Stasi attending meetings pretending to be dissidents.

            1. also like when the Hillary campaign sent in rabble rousers into Trump rallys

              1. Right. Government agents in private forums, versus private citizens in public forums.

                Exactly the same! Also, one is a figment of your imagination.

    3. Ron, you have a point. The cops did not hack into Facebook accounts. They set up a fake account and asked for access to the posts which the activists gave them. It’s underhanded, and I suppose the cops should not do it, but I don’t know if it is bad enough to be illegal.

      1. It certainly violated the court order.

  2. This is the same ACLU that tried to force a Catholic diocese to release internal communications about their support for pro-life demonstrators, right?

    Too bad they have no consistent principles

    1. I suppose adhering to whatever left-wing politics dictates at the moment is a principle. Just not an admirable one.

      1. This is what progressives mean when they say they care about people, not rules.

    2. This is the same ACLU that tried to force a Catholic diocese to release internal communications about their support for pro-life demonstrators, right?

      Did they call people lamers or something in the communications? Seems weird to push hard for internal communications stating something that they both publicly support and are probably the entity most universally associated with that stance.

      1. They were trying to make a clumsy argument that the Church had influenced a Texas law that required that aborted fetuses to be buried. In part, it was retaliatory, because the Church had argued that it would bury the fetuses at no cost, which undercut the argument about cost to providers with regards to the law.

        1. Actually, I got to double check if that was the incident that I was thinking about

          1. Just click on the link in your initial comment.

            1. What I appreciate about your old man brand of libertarianism Hugh is that it’s perpetually stuck in 1968. Don’t worry, you’ll get Tricky Dick some day

  3. I guess all crime in Memphis has been eradicated since they have the time and public resources to go into precrime.

  4. Go to Nashville , Least expensive Town I have ever partied in and better music than I heard in Memphis (even at BB King’s Bar. )
    O(h and FTP

    1. +1 Agreed. Nashville has a huge music scene beyond just country and is much cleaner and safer.

    2. Didn’t make it to Nashville. Went to Memphis because it was Elvis’ Birthday, and, I figured I should.
      TIL: You don’t want to stay near Graceland.

  5. Hm, I thought only libertarian kooks didn’t trust the government. (You guys know the police are part of the government, right?)

  6. Huh, I thought violated the terms of service of a website like this was a federal crime.

    1. Many things can be true.

      – What the police have done in this situation, regardless of it’s legality, is authoritarian

      – Violating terms of services is not a crime, but open the company up for civil penalties

      – The president doesn’t understand the distinction between “civil” and “criminal”

      – You are the queen of false equivalencies

      1. It is also true that it is in violation of a court order.

    2. I think unauthorized access (ie stealing passwords, rooting servers, etc) is a crime.
      Giving fake information is not.

  7. Speaking of police misusing Facebook.

    From WaPo:

    “The Justice Department plans to alert the public to foreign operations targeting U.S. democracy under a new policy designed to counter hacking and disinformation campaigns such as the one Russia undertook in 2016 to disrupt the presidential election.

    The government will inform American companies, private organizations and individuals that they are being covertly attacked by foreign actors attempting to affect elections or the political process.

    “Exposing schemes to the public is an important way to neutralize them,” said Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who announced the policy at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, according to prepared remarks. “The American people have a right to know if foreign governments are targeting them with propaganda.”

    1. Meh. Imagine all the damage these idiots could do if they were applying themselves to real problems instead of spinning their wheels on made-up nonsense. This is the FedGov equivalent of yelling at your kids to go play outside until supper.

  8. “Spying is only bad when you do it to the Left. When you spy on Right wing political candidates, that’s totally great.”

  9. So…..what I’m getting from this is that the cops read facebook.


  10. We should be concerned regarding an ACLU claim why? Is there any reason to take their claims as more valid than the SPLC?

  11. Ordinarily I’d side with BLM here because they correctly identify a problem but just misdiagnose the cause (thinking police brutality is due to racism when it’s mostly police unions), but the ACLU is dead to me. When they say people have way too much freedom and that just antagonizes government, they can kiss my big behind.

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