ACLU of Tennessee Joins Lawsuit Challenging Memphis Police Spying on Political Groups

City's Surveillance Policies Violate 1978 Consent Decree

Affiliate: ACLU of Tennessee
March 2, 2017 2:15 pm

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee today intervened in a lawsuit challenging the City of Memphis’ creation of a list of people who require a police escort while visiting City Hall, contending that it violates the First Amendment and a 1978 ACLU-TN consent decree prohibiting the Memphis government from monitoring constitutionally-protected political activities.

The lawsuit, Blanchard v. City of Memphis, was filed in response to the City of Memphis’s recent publication of the list, which included multiple members of the Black Lives Matter movement; the mother of Darrius Stewart, a teen killed by Memphis police; representatives from local non-profit organizations; and other local political activists and organizers.

“This lawsuit asserts that many of the people who were on this list participated in protected free speech activities such as protests and rallies, but have no criminal record or history of causing disturbances at City Hall — which suggests that the city is once again conducting political intelligence actions against its residents,” said Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU-TN legal director. “If any surveillance was conducted for the purpose of gathering political intelligence, it would flout the consent decree that’s been in place for nearly four decades. Likewise, the creation of a police escort list based on people’s speech, assembly, or associations would clearly chill protected expression, in violation of the First Amendment.”

While Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings announced on Wednesday, March 1 that protesters had been removed from the police escort list, their original presence on the list still indicates potential violations of the decades-old consent decree.

In 1976, the ACLU of Tennessee, represented by attorney Bruce Kramer, filed the class action lawsuit Kendrick v. Chandler, on behalf of Memphis citizens and organizations wishing to exercise their First Amendment rights free from government surveillance. The lawsuit was filed after an ACLU investigation revealed that informers from the city’s domestic intelligence unit had infiltrated local student and political groups and collected information on their activities for years, including the city’s sanitation worker strike in 1968, led in part by Martin Luther King Jr.

The resulting 1978 consent decree, the first in the nation to forbid the maintenance of domestic intelligence units that monitor the First Amendment activities of citizens, prohibits the City of Memphis from ever again engaging in the collection, maintenance or dissemination of information regarding a person’s lawful political activities. The decree also bans the city from using informers or collecting license plate numbers or taking photos of participants at public protests and rallies, and requires the city to review any criminal investigation that could infringe on First Amendment rights.

“Almost forty years ago, ACLU-TN challenged Memphis government’s spying on innocent people because it completely undermined their right to assemble and speak freely and their right to privacy. It’s disturbing to find that we have come full circle despite the court’s strong order to cease such activities decades ago, but if the city needs another reminder from the courts, we are prepared to see it through,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director. “Trampling on free speech rights and attempting to intimidate people who want to take part in the civic process did not make us safe in 1978, and it does nothing to make us safe in 2017.”

The current lawsuit asks the court to find the city in contempt of court for disregarding the consent decree, calls for immediate dissolution of the “blacklist,” and requests prohibition of such lists in the future.

The lawsuit was filed on February 22 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee by Bruce Kramer of Apperson Crump, PLC.

ACLU-TN’s brief filed today can be found here:

The Blanchard v. City of Memphis lawsuit that ACLU-TN joined can be found here:

Additional information on Memphis’ history of government surveillance and the 1976 Kendrick v. Chandler lawsuit can be found here:

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