Back in July, racial equity advocacy group Color of Change partnered with the Center for Constitutional Rights to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information related to the federal government’s surveillance of The Movement for Black Lives organizers and protesters. After reportedly not receiving the requested documents, the groups filed a lawsuit against both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) yesterday (October 20).
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, comes after The Intercept uncovered documents that show DHS collects information on activists via their social media accounts, particularly in Baltimore, Ferguson, New York City and Washington, D.C. Surveillance has been a hot topic of late, as the ACLU and several civil rights organizations work in tandem to introduce local legislation that would limit how law enforcement can use technology to monitor citizens. And it’s not new: it has been well documented that the FBI used a surveillance program called COINTELPRO to investigate and “neutralize” members of the Black Panther Party.
“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 press release sent to Colorlines. “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 alleges that the surveillance began during the protests that followed the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and that it targets people based on their race and political viewpoints and undermines their 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. Specifically, Defendants’ surveillance and monitoring practices chill valuable public debate about police violence, including the use of deadly force, criminal justice, and racial inequities.
Surveillance and monitoring of MBL protesters and leaders’ activities also may impinge on their reasonable expectations of privacy in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The plaintiffs want the FBI and DHS to comply with the FOIA request within 10 days, waive associated fees and pay their legal expenses. Read the full 17-page suit here.