MEMPHIS, Tenn. – A federal judge ruled Friday that the Memphis Police Department violated a consent decree between the ACLU of Tennessee and City of Memphis by spying on protesters through the department’s political spying program, USA Today reported.
U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla ruled on the Blanchard v. City of Memphis case that the department violated a consent decree from 1978 between the city and the ACLU of Tennessee by spying on political protesters and conducting investigations.
Specifically, the judge ruled the city failed to train Memphis police officers on “political intelligence.” It is this area which is prohibited by the consent decree.
As a result, to “ensure future compliance,” sanctions were imposed by the court. This means the agency needs to revise their policy on political intelligence.
Consequently, the court appointed an independent monitor to supervise the sanctions.
The lawsuit was first filed on Feb. 22, 2017, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee in response to Memphis’ publication of a list of people who required a police escort while visiting City Hall.
The list named several members of Black Lives Matter, the mother of Darrius Stewart, a teen killed by Memphis police, representatives from local nonprofit organizations, and other local political organizers.
“This important decision ensures that activists in Memphis can continue to fight the good fight without fear of unwarranted police surveillance,” ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said in a statement.
“The right to free speech is crucial to our ability to speak out against injustice and to hold the government accountable. Especially in this day and age, being able to truly engage in dialogue about important issues without the threat of intimidation is vital to our democracy.”
Memphis Police Department did not immediately provide a response to the ruling.
According to USA Today, the ACLU of Tennessee intervened in the case on March 2, 2017.
Among the issues argued in an August trial was whether the ACLU of Tennessee had legal standing to sue. The state ACLU wasn’t a party to the 1978 consent decree — rather, a west Tennessee chapter of the ACLU took part, and the city argued the state ACLU could enforce the rules, according to previous reports.
However, the judge also ruled Friday that the ACLU of Tennessee possessed legal standing to file the suit.
Evidence from the case showed Memphis police conducted extensive surveillance, including creating fake Facebook profiles to befriend protesters on social media and gain access to private messages. This became an issue last month when the social media giant cracked down on the agency for using fictitious profiles to gain intelligence.
Evidence presented also showed Memphis police sent plainclothes officers to monitor protests, church services, a tree-planting ceremony in memory of a teen killed by Memphis police and a black-owned food truck festival, the ACLU of Tennessee said.
Most noteworthy, the court listed seven findings during its examination:
- The police department conducted “political intelligence” as specifically defined and forbidden by the consent decree.
- The department operated the Office of Homeland Security for the purpose of political intelligence.
- The department intercepted electronic communications and infiltrated groups through the “Bob Smith” Facebook account.
- The department failed to familiarize MPD officers with the requirements of the decree.
- The department did not establish an approval process for lawful investigations into criminal conduct that might incidentally reveal information implicating First Amendment rights.
- The department disseminated information obtained in the course of an investigation to individuals outside law enforcement.
- The department recorded the identities of protest attendees for the purpose of maintaining a record.
“This ruling is a tremendous victory for free speech in Memphis and nationwide,” said Thomas H. Castelli, the ACLU of Tennessee legal director, in a statement.
“The court not only recognized that under the consent decree Memphis residents enjoy even stronger free speech protections than those afforded by the First Amendment, but that this uniquely positions Memphis to be a standard-bearer for cities across the country as they wrestle with how to protect individuals’ privacy and free speech in the face of ever-growing surveillance technologies.”
We hope to hear the perspective of the Memphis Police Department soon on the issue.