ACLU-TN has had an ongoing concern over police surveillance of Memphis residents engaging in protected free speech activities for many decades now.
On March 2, 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee intervened in Blanchard v. City of Memphis, a lawsuit challenging the City of Memphis' creation of a list of people, including multiple members of the Black Lives Matter movement and other local political activists and organizers, who require a police escort while visiting City Hall.
The existence of this so-called "blacklist" violates not only the First Amendment, but also a 1978 consent decree secured by ACLU-TN that banned the Memphis government from all future monitoring of constitutionally-protected political activities.
The consent decree, the first in the nation of its kind, 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.
Timeline of Events
Circa 1965 – The Memphis Police Department establishes Domestic Intelligence Unit
The Memphis Police Department establishes a Domestic Intelligence Department (DIU) to covertly investigate and maintain secret files of citizens engaged in non-criminal, constitutionally protected activities that are considered "subversive" or politically controversial, a violation of the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments.
1967 – Lt. E. H. Arkin begins monitoring anti-war protests for DIU
Lieutenant E. H. Arkin is assigned to the Police Department Inspectional Bureau, begins monitoring Silent Peace Vigils held in opposition to the war in Southeast Asia.
1968 – Mayor Loeb commissions undercover surveillance of City Sanitation Workers' organizing
Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb commissions two undercover officers to infiltrate and report on City Sanitation Workers’ efforts to form a union, a movement which eventually includes the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
April 1968 – Martin Luther King assassinated; DIU targets "Civil Rights, Union, and Negro Coalition"
After Dr. King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, DIU investigatory targets were a wide range of individuals and organizations engaged in "Civil Rights, Union, and Negro Coalition activities." These include, but are not limited to: the ACLU, NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, City of Memphis Hospital workers, Memphis State University Black Students' Organization, Memphis Public Schools principals and teachers, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
The DIU implements multiple unconstitutional methods to track their targets, including monitoring U.S. mail without a warrant, tracking of bank, telephone, and students' records, reporting on private sexual preferences and activities, and searching of homes. None of the subjects being investigated are aware they are being monitored.
1968 - 1976 – DIU expands surveillance network, increases budget
The Intelligence Unit staff and network of undercover officers and informers continues to expand until the 1976 DIU budget is close to $1,000,000 (or, inflated to reflect today's market value, nearly $4,270,000), with another $10,000 (almost $43,000 today) earmarked for paid informers. 1
The list of subject organizations was also expanded during this time.
August 15, 1976 – Memphis State student Eric Carter, local journalists uncover vast surveillance conspiracy
Eric Carter, a former Memphis State University student and member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, discovers that his former roommate had been an undercover officer and that the DIU had been monitoring his activities. He repeatedly requests that the DIU allow him to see the file maintained on him. Without prior approval by the police department’s legal advisor, the documents are incinerated. Subsequently, after it is revealed that the DIU has been maintaining files on other persons in addition to Carter, local newspapers and elected officials begin raising concerns and calling for an explanation.
September 10, 1976 – ACLU intervenes; Mayor Chandler attempts to burn all DIU files
After reports confirm that the City is planning to destroy all additional evidence of DIU activities, the ACLU of Tennessee, represented by attorney Bruce Kramer, requested an order from the Federal District Court restraining the city from further destruction or alteration of files.
The order is granted but before it can be served, Mayor Wyeth Chandler orders that the files be destroyed "by noon" and the responsibilities of the Domestic Intelligence Unit be terminated.
Ten filing cabinets worth of photographs, reports and documents compiled over a nine-year period are stuffed into garbage bags by DIU staff, taken to city's Scott Street incinerator, doused with fuel and burned.
September 14, 1976 – ACLU files Kendrick v. Chandler
On September 14, 1976, the ACLU files a class action complaint in Federal District Court alleging that the city's behavior violated basic and fundamental constitutional rights of privacy and freedom of association and belief.
1978 – ACLU-TN secures consent decree banning all future political spying
After two years of investigation, during which additional documents about the surveillance program are recovered, ACLU-TN secured a consent order forbidding the city’s use of electronic surveillance, infiltration, harassment, provocation, or any other actions that would deter individuals from exercising their First Amendment rights.
Additionally, ACLU and the city agree to erase identifying information of previously monitored individuals from all public documents.
The order was the first in the nation forbidding domestic intelligence units that monitor First Amendment activities of citizens.
- Police Order Burning of File On Vietnam War Protester (The Commercial Appeal, September 8, 1976)
- When Policemen Become Spies (The Salt Lake City Tribune, 1980)