Civil Rights Groups Sue FBI and Homeland Security for Records on Black Lives Surveillance

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

By Adam Klasfeld, Courthouse News Service


MANHATTAN (CN) — Amid reports on federal monitoring of protesters, two prominent civil-rights groups filed a lawsuit (pdf) demanding that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security cough up records on their surveillance of Movement for Black Lives activists.


Color of Change, a California-based nonprofit, and the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights brought their Freedom of Information Act request to Manhattan federal court on Thursday.


"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," Color Of Change's campaign director Brandi Collins 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," she added.


Formerly known as Black Lives Matter, what is now known as the Movement for Black Lives first crossed the federal government's radar on Aug. 9, 2014, when a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, sparking massive protests there.


The Huffington Post later reported that Federal Emergency Management Agency kept a close eye on the protests at the time, monitoring the social media accounts of protesters there.


"Police violence, criminal justice, and racial inequity are now the subjects of an impassioned national, political debate," the 17-page lawsuit notes. "[The Movement for Black Lives] has played a significant role in bringing this discussion to the forefront by holding demonstrations in cities throughout the country, often in response to deadly police shootings of black people."


Several news outlets have reported on the extensive surveillance on those demonstrations.


Citing that coverage, the lawsuit lists headlines from The Intercept, Vice News, CBS Chicago, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun and Mother Jones.


The civil rights groups claim that surveillance took many different forms across peaceful vigils and margins, including via cell-site simulators known as StingRays, a technology that a federal judge ruled this year impermissibly turned "a citizen's cellphone into a tracking device."


The surveillance extended beyond the federal agencies: The Guardian reported that the New York City Police Department sent undercover officers to monitor Black Lives Matter protests, in possible defiance of a federal court order to curb politically motivated investigations.


The rights groups say that the federal agencies might also be violating protesters' constitutional rights.


"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," the lawsuit states.


The groups add that this reported spying on the protesters could also "impinge on their reasonable expectations of privacy in violation of the Fourth Amendment."


Omar Farah, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, said in a statement that this surveillance has echoes of the FBI's Cointelpro program, which sparked a congressional investigation slamming the bureau's spying on political activists in the 1970s.


"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," Farah said. "The public has the right to know how and why the federal government is surveilling constitutionally protected activity in response to police violence."


The lawsuit emphasizes the public's "vital interest in knowing the nature and extent of defendants' surveillance of constitutionally protected speech and expression."


"Desire for secrecy should not shield potential constitutional violations," it continues.


Color of Change filed its request to the agencies on July 5 this year.


Both agencies acknowledged receipt of the request within the month, but the Department of Homeland Security turned down the group's request for expedited processing.


In September, the agency's Office of Intelligence and Analysis claimed no responsive records existed, but the response remained silent as to whether other agency components had releasable information.


The FBI stopped sending responses after acknowledging Color of Change's request on July 28, according to the lawsuit.


The correspondence is included among 35 pages of exhibits attached to the lawsuit.


Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Gillian Christensen and FBI spokesman Christopher Allen both said that their agencies do not comment on pending litigation as a matter of policy.


To Learn More:

Color of Change and Center for Constitutional Rights v. U.S. Department of Homeland Security and FBI (U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York) (pdf)

Spying on Oregon Civil Rights Director Unveils State Surveillance of Black Lives Matter (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Houston FBI Justified Spying on Protesters by Saying Keystone Pipeline was Vital to National Security (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

U.S. Counter-Terrorism Apparatus is used to Quell Dissent among Americans (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

FBI Wants More Authority to Spy Live on Gmail, Skype, Dropbox and Cloud (by Matt Bewig)

Occupy Wall Street Was Target of FBI Counterterrorism Operation (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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