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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A federal judge has ruled that by engaging in surveillance of the protected political activities of activists, the Memphis police have violated a 1978 court order prohibiting the Memphis government from monitoring constitutionally-protected political activities.
“This ruling is a tremendous victory for free speech in Memphis and nationwide,” said Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU-TN legal director. “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.”
The lawsuit, Blanchard v. City of Memphis, was filed in response to the City of Memphis’s publication of a list of people who required a police escort while visiting City Hall. The list 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. The lawsuit asserted that many of the people who were on the list participated in protected free speech activities such as protests and rallies, but had no criminal record or history of causing disturbances at City Hall, suggesting that the city was conducting political intelligence actions against its residents.
Evidence collected during the case revealed that the Memphis police had engaged in extensive surveillance of individuals and organizations engaging in protected political speech, including creating a fake Facebook profile to “friend” protesters’ accounts and gain access to private messages; distributing “joint intelligence briefs” on protesters to the U.S. Military, the Department of Justice, the Tennessee Department of Homeland Security, AutoZone, FedEx, St. Jude’s and more; and sending plainclothes officers to covertly monitor protests and community events like church services, a tree planting ceremony in memory of a teen killed by Memphis police and a Black-owned food truck festival.
The court ruled that the city failed to train its officers on “political intelligence” as defined and forbidden by the 1978 consent decree. This failure led to a “shared misunderstanding of the Decree’s requirements and a significant number of violations.” The court imposed sanctions “designed to ensure future compliance” with the consent decree, including requirements that the Memphis police department revise their policy on political intelligence, train officers, establish a process for approving criminal investigations that may incidentally result in gathering political intelligence, establish written guidelines for the use of social media searches, maintain a list of all search terms used in social media collators and submit the list to the court quarterly. The court is also appointing an independent monitor to supervise the implementation of these sanctions.
In the order, the court wrote, “Every community must decide how to ensure an appropriate balance between public safety and protecting personal rights … By successful implementation of the Consent Decree, MPD has the opportunity to become one of the few, if only, metropolitan police departments in the country with a robust policy for the protection of privacy in the digital age. The Court recognizes this may be a heavy burden; being a pioneer usually is.”
“This important decision ensures that activists in Memphis can continue to fight the good fight without fear of unwarranted police surveillance,” said ACLU-TN Executive Director Hedy Weinberg. “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.”
Blanchard v. City of Memphis was filed on February 22, 2017 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee by Bruce Kramer of Apperson Crump, PLC. The ACLU of Tennessee intervened in the case on March 2, 2017.
Today’s ruling can be found here:
Additional information and documents related to Blanchard v. City of Memphis can be found at:
Background information on Kendrick v. Chandler, the lawsuit that led to the 1978 consent decree, can be found here: