Judge says city violated order by keeping tabs on political activists

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A federal judge said Friday that Memphis Police violated a 1978 consent decree when it used social media to monitor several activists and created a list of protest participants who could not enter City Hall without an escort.

U.S. District Judge John McCalla ruled that the city engaged in “political intelligence,” but did not specify whether the city acted on the information by infiltrating groups, distributing false information or actually deterring anyone from speaking. He denied the city’s motion for summary judgment in a case filed by the ACLU.

Memphis police collected a list of known activists who were not allowed in City Hall without an escort after protesters staged a “die-in” at Mayor Jim Strickland’s home. MPD officers also used fake social media accounts to monitor potential protests including Black Lives Matter events.

A group of activists filed suit against the city in 2017, claiming that these actions violated the consent decree. That lawsuit is ongoing.

The 1978 order is meant to prevent the city from investigating people for exercising First Amendment rights. It says the city “shall not intercept, record, transcribe or otherwise interfere with any communication by means of electronic surveillance for the purpose of political intelligence.”

The city’s chief legal officer Bruce McMullen maintained that the 40-year-old order should not apply to today’s modern Internet communications and electronic surveillance technology.

“The Memphis Police Department’s monitoring of social media for protests and counter protests is non-partisan,” McMullen wrote on the city’s website. “The City has an obligation to provide public safety and to anticipate threats to public safety. Monitoring social media has allowed the Police Department to dispatch the appropriate amount of resources to protect protestors, counter protestors and the public at large. …

“We’re confident that the Court will find that no one’s constitutional rights were violated.”