Memphis, TN (PT) – The American Civil Liberties Union is back in the news again this week following the successful outcome of yet another lawsuit, this time filed by the ACLU of Tennessee, which was to result in the release into the public domain of a substantial trove of legal documents. The case, brought against the City of Memphis, was based on a consent decree, ‘an agreement or settlement that resolves a dispute between two parties without admission of guilt’, dating from 1978, which lawyers, acting on behalf of the Defendant, had argued was outdated and therefore “out of step with modern police techniques” in the words of the city’s chief legal officer, Bruce McMullen.
McMullen then went on to add that, “The consent decree was drafted before the internet — before smartphones, body cameras, or any type of digital cameras. MPD’s observance of posts made on social media is consistent with best practices of law enforcement agencies across the country and is nothing more than good police work.” According to a report published in The Hill last Thursday, the material released is said to include large quantities of personal information about activists involved with the Memphis Coalition of Concerned Citizens and Black Lives Matter. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that at least some of this material may have been obtained and subsequently used inappropriately.
According to another report on the UK Guardian website, where the original story broke on Wednesday morning, a whole range of what appears to have been highly sensitive personal information, which the ACLU lawsuit suggests was distributed well beyond the Memphis Police Department itself, has been recovered as a result of the release of documents by the City of Memphis. This alleges to have included dates of birth, addresses, photographs obtained from social media, and even mental health histories in some cases.
Some of this information not only appears to have fallen into the hands of a number of local businesses, most notably the region’s largest employer, FedEx, but also seems to have been disseminated through various channels within the County school district and elsewhere. Facts that are suggestive of this having gone well beyond what is usually viewed as the acceptable boundaries of lawful policing. The fact that some of the personal information that appears to have been distributed is alleged to have included that belonging to a number of personal acquaintances of those who were under surveillance, some of whom appeared never to have been arrested in connection with any related offences or likewise accused of breaking any law, is perhaps in itself more deeply worrying.
In a page on its website posted in March of last year, the ACLU-TN stated that it “has had an ongoing concern over police surveillance of Memphis residents engaging in protected free speech activities for many decades now.” The statement, which refers directly to the existence of a so-called ‘blacklist’, which ‘violates……the First Amendment’, also seems to suggest that a ‘consent decree secured by ACLU-TN that banned the Memphis government from all future monitoring of constitutionally-protected political activities had also been contravened. The self same consent decree apparently dismissed by the City’s chief legal officer, Bruce McMullen, as being “out of step with modern police techniques” on the City of Memphis website previously quoted in the opening paragraph of this article. According to a report on the Think Progress website, however, the material released as a result of the consent decree filing may also “violate the law” on a number of other levels as well.
The chain of events that were to result in the release of what may well turn out to be large amounts of incriminating evidence, as far as certain elements within the police and local government power structure are concerned at any rate, began on March 2, 2017; when the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee intervened in a lawsuit challenging the “creation of a list of people, including multiple members of the Black Lives Matter movement and other local political activists and organizers” by the City of Memphis. According to the ACLU Tennessee website, those on the list “now require a police escort while visiting City Hall.” This so-called ‘City Hall Escort List’, which, according to an article on the Citylab website appears to have been created by Memphis police, provided the basis and initial impetus for the original ACLU filing. A filing that was eventually to reveal that the apparent flagging by police of BLM and other activists “if ever on City Hall grounds” was “just a fraction of what was going on.” According to Citylab’s Brentin Mock.
Although media interest has been focused primarily on the creation of a fake social media account, or ‘sock puppet’ called Bob Smith, comparatively little attention has been paid to the fact that the previously referred to 1978 consent decree, “the first in the nation of its kind” according to the ACLU, “was the result of a multi-year investigation revealing a vast political surveillance network which the City of Memphis secretly operated for nearly a decade.” Indeed, the establishment by the Memphis Police Department of a Domestic Intelligence Unit (DIU), which was set up in order to covertly investigate and maintain secret files of citizens engaged in non-criminal, constitutionally protected activities that are considered ‘subversive’ or ‘politically controversial’ would seem to be a direct “violation of the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments” according to the Tennessee ACLU website.
An additional fact that is deeply worrying in a nation that claims to have been founded on democratic principles based on freedom of speech, is that although it is referred to directly in such published works as ‘The Assassinations: Probe Magazine on JFK, MLK, RFK and Malcolm X’ edited by James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease, no direct reference to the DIU, which seems to have been put together as early as 1965, appears to feature at present anywhere on the MPD Wikipedia page or the MPD website. Thus, many ordinary citizens are not even aware of its existence.