Spying on people engaged in First Amendment-protected activity is a time-honored government tradition. The FBI, NSA, and CIA pioneered unconstitutional surveillance in the 1960s, leading eventually to the Church Committee's smackdown and a series of reforms aimed at preventing the casual abuse of surveillance powers.
It worked. A little. The DHS has picked up where the other agencies left off, portraying its surveillance of protesters as part of its national security purview. The NYPD has also done this regularly, violating both the Constitution and agreements it made following civil rights lawsuits.
The Memphis Police Department is another law enforcement agency that can't keep its nose out of the public's First Amendment business. A decision handed down by a Tennessee federal court will hopefully put an end to the Memphis PD's long-running violation of a 40-year-old consent decree.
The ACLU of Tennessee -- the other partner in the 1978 consent decree -- sued the City of Memphis over unconstitutional police activity. The decision [PDF] summarizes the numerous violations engaged in by Memphis law enforcement.
The Court finds that the ACLU-TN has shown by clear and convincing evidence that the City:
1) Conducted “political intelligence” as specifically defined and forbidden by the Consent Decree;
2) Operated the Office of Homeland Security for the purpose of political intelligence;
3) Intercepted electronic communications and infiltrated groups through the “Bob Smith” Facebook account;
4) Failed to familiarize MPD officers with the requirements of the Decree;
5) Did not establish an approval process for lawful investigations into criminal conduct that might incidentally reveal information implicating First Amendment rights;
6) Disseminated information obtained in the course of an investigation to individuals outside of law enforcement; and
7) Recorded the identities of protest attendees for the purpose of maintaining a record.
The fifth one on the list is especially interesting, given recent events. Last month, Facebook sent a letter to Mike Rallings, the director of the MPD, reminding him and his officers that its "real name" policy forbids impersonation and fake accounts. This isn't a practice limited to the Memphis PD, but it is the agency Facebook chose to call out publicly for violating its policies.
The 1978 Consent Decree laid this all out very clearly:
The provisions of this Decree prohibit the defendants and the City of Memphis from engaging in law enforcement activities which interfere with any person’s rights protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution including, but not limited to, the rights to communicate an idea or belief, to speak and dissent freely, to write and to publish, and to associate privately and publicly for any lawful purpose.
Furthermore, even in connection with the investigation of criminal conduct, the defendants and the City of Memphis must appropriately limit all law enforcement activities so as not to infringe on any person’s First Amendment rights.
Despite this, the PD engaged in everything listed above, which clearly violates the limitations placed on it forty years ago. After deciding the ACLU has standing to pursue this lawsuit, the court says the PD cannot invoke its "public safety" mantra to excuse surveilling protesters, even if public safety was actually its true objective. Trying to dodge culpability by claiming forbidden surveillance is just good police work is a non-starter. The consent decree does not give the MPD the wiggle room it thinks it has.
The Consent Decree... is clear and unequivocal in its language. Understood in its entirety, the Consent Decree bans investigative activity into the exercise of First Amendment Rights by Memphis residents. Political Intelligence is impermissible as the means of investigation, as the ends of investigation, or as an intermediate step in a larger investigation. The City has agreed that it will not engage in certain activity and is bound by that agreement.
The details of the violations run several pages. This is just the beginning of the MPD's wrongdoing.
MPD’s Real Time Crime Center (“RTCC”) conducted political intelligence when an officer searched its social media collator for all instances of the term “Black Lives Matter,” because the information gathered related to First Amendment Rights. MPD officers gathered and circulated social media posts about potential boycotts and boycotts are squarely within the protection of the First Amendment. MPD gathered information on journalists based on their associations with Black Lives Matter. (Testimony of Eddie Bass, ECF No. 138 at 5736-37; Ex. 120 “Below are three twitter accounts for two freelance journalist[s] and one Commercial Appeal journalist who apparently have the trust of the BLM protesters. These accounts seem to provide good real-time information during a protest event.”) MPD indexed information relating to the leadership of lawful protests. Major Lambert Ross ordered social media monitoring for a “BLM Rally” and a “Community Organizers Cookout.” Each of these represents an affirmative investigative act focusing on First Amendment rights in violation of the Consent Decree.
In addition, the MPD converted its "Office of Homeland Security" into a clearinghouse for unconstitutional surveillance, gathering "political intelligence" on everyone from Black Lives Matters to pro-Palestinian activists to people pushing for a $15/hr minimum wage. The PD's "Bob Smith" Facebook account was used to track political activists and surveill their activities.
All of these violations stemmed from the MPD's failure to train its officers to comply with the consent decree. It's not so much of a failure as it is decades of just not caring. The PD dedicated one page to the decree in its "voluminous policy and procedural manual." Officers engaged in violations were often not aware they were violating the decree. This ignorance was also displayed by department supervisors and officials. As the court points out, this isn't a new problem. It's a continuous problem directly traceable to "inadequate training over a sustained period of time."
Here's what the city will be doing to remedy this. First, the PD will be forced to stop gathering "political intelligence" because there's no possible way for it to do this and still comply with the consent decree. It will also prevent any misunderstandings of what's forbidden by the consent decree. The PD will also need to train its command staff on decree compliance, quite possibly for the first time. Guidelines will be developed and put in place to govern the MPD's social media activities. All social media search terms used by officers or investigators will need to be turned over to the court every three months. And, as a capper, the city will be paying the ACLU's legal fees.
This may eventually upend some deep-seated problems in the department. Then again, the MPD has had 40 years to perfect its compliance with the consent decree and has steadily moved farther away from the crystal-clear restrictions it contained. If nothing else, a federal court has publicly aired the department's dirty laundry. This may not push the MPD into admitting and accepting it has a problem. But it does prevent it from remaining in denial.
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