FBI and DHS sued over Black Lives Matter surveillance

Attorneys for Black Lives Matter activists sued the federal government this week in an effort to obtain information about its monitoring of constitutionally protected protests.

Filed Thursday in Manhattan federal court, the lawsuit says the FBI and Department of Homeland Security should be compelled to produce records concerning their surveillance of demonstrations related to the Movement for Black Lives (MBL), a recently formed coalition composed of more than 50 civil rights groups including the Black Lives Matter Network and the National Conference of Black Lawyers.

Activists requested the documents in July under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but the agencies have either denied the existence of any records or ignored the requests: the DHS said in a Sept. 20 letter that a search of its files reveled no responsive documents, and the FBI hasn’t done anything except acknowledge the groups’ initial request, according to the lawsuit.

Specifically the group seek information about “policies and actions involving the monitoring and surveillance of public protests surrounding police violence, policing reform, racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement.” Attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic Center at Case Western Reserve University School of Law sued on behalf of the racial justice network Color of Change this week in hopes of having a federal judge force the agencies into releasing information about the surveillance operations.

“Government is supposed to protect our rights, not suppress our freedom—and yet for decades we’ve seen our government engage in a number of illegal surveillance practices that do just that,” Brandi Collins, campaign director at Color Of Change, said in a statement. “Despite their denials, it is clear the Department of Homeland Security and FBI are continuing their disturbing legacy of employing secretive surveillance tactics with murky legal parameters to chill the Movement for Black Lives, along the way targeting individuals in a number of terrifying ways.”

The DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon. The FBI’s national press office told The Washington Times that the bureau wouldn’t weigh in on pending legislation. 

As revealed in several media reports and the government’s own admissions, demonstrators have most certainly been monitored by federal investigators during Black Lives Matter protests around the country in recent years. The lawsuit says Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials began monitoring social media for information on protests soon after 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by a Ferguson, Mo. police officer in 2014, and claims activists exercising their First Amendment rights have since been targeted with aerial surveillance, specialized software, telephone signal spoofers and other spy tools.

One of the most well-known activists associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, former Baltimore mayoral hopeful DeRay McKesson, was categorized by cybersecurity professionals working with the federal government as a “threat actor” who demanded “continuous monitoring,” according to public reporting cited in the lawsuit. 

“Monitoring MBL’s legitimate protest activities with the same surveillance methods used to target and disrupt potential terrorists undermines the First Amendment’s robust protection of political speech. Specifically, Defendants’ surveillance and monitoring practices chill valuable public debate about police violence, including the use of deadly force, criminal justice, and racial inequities,” reads an excerpt from their 17-page complaint.

In addition to alleged First Amendment violations, the plaintiffs argue that government surveillance infringes on the protesters’ reasonable expectations of privacy as protected by the Fourth Amendment right.

“The public has a vital interest in knowing the nature and extent of Defendants’ surveillance of constitutionally protected speech and expression. Desire forsecrecy should not shield potential constitutional violations,” the attorneys added,In a statement, the plaintiffs said the lawsuit was purposely filed this week to commemorate 50 years since the founding of the Black Panther Party – a group who soon after became the subject of intense surveillance and psychological warfare waged by the FBI.

“Just like in decades past, fatal police shootings of Black people continue with alarming frequency, as does the unlawful government surveillance of those who speak out against it and protest,” said Omar Farah, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “The public has the right to know how and why the federal government is surveilling constitutionally protected activity in response to police violence.”


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