October 20, 2016, New York – Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic Center at Case Western Reserve University School of Law (“Case Western Reserve”) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), for failure to disclose documents related to surveillance of protests and activism in support of the Movement for Black Lives (MBL). The case, filed on behalf of the racial justice network Color of Change, follows revelations that federal and local law enforcement have used counterterrorism tactics to surveil protests, protesters, and perceived protest leaders.
“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,” said Brandi Collins, campaign director at Color Of Change. “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 lawsuit claims that the surveillance began in Ferguson, MO, during protests following the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) tracked social media to monitor protests. Since then, according to the lawsuit, federal agencies have coordinated with state and local police departments all over the country to monitor peaceful vigils and marches, as well as social media accounts protesting deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement. The lawsuit further cites evidence that police have used a “cell site simulator,” commonly known as a “Stingray,” to surveil protests and identified certain activists as “threat actors” requiring “continuous monitoring.” Recent litigation has revealed surveillance of the Movement for Black Lives by local law enforcement in various parts of the country; today’s suit seeks information on the federal government’s role. The government has refused to release any information regarding its surveillance program or its coordination with local law enforcement to monitor and suppress protest activity.
Attorneys say the surveillance violates the First Amendment, chilling protesters from speaking out and assembling, and that such monitoring is reminiscent of the surveillance of the Black Panther Party, which was a target of the FBI’s notorious illegal COINTELPRO program. The filing of the lawsuit was timed to honor the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party on October 15, 1966.
“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.”
The attorneys contend that surveillance and secrecy is at odds with an open and free society. “The targeted monitoring of activists and their political speech is the hallmark of a surveillance state,” said Avidan Cover, Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University. “Thankfully, the Freedom of Information Act requires the government to disclose its efforts to chill dissent.”
The lawsuit also alleges that the surveillance invades protesters’ privacy, thereby violating the Fourth Amendment, and that the surveillance has targeted Movement for Black Lives protesters based on their race and political viewpoints.
To read today’s filing, visit CCR’s case page.
Color Of Change is the nation’s largest online racial justice organization. We help people respond effectively to injustice in the world around us. As a national online force driven by over one million members, we move decision-makers in corporations and government to create a more human and less hostile world for Black people in America. Visit www.colorofchange.org.
The Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic Center has provided legal assistance to individual clients and organizations for over 45 years. A hallmark of the educational experience at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio, the clinic trains students for the legal profession by giving them the opportunity to work with real clients on real cases under faculty supervision. Each year, the clinic handles over 100 cases in many different areas of law, including human rights, immigration, criminal justice, civil litigation, intellectual property, health and community development. Visit www.law.case.edu and follow @CWRU_Law.