Lawsuit Seeks End To City Hall List and Police Surveillance

By Bill Dries

Four of the 81 citizens on the City Hall escort list filed suit against the city of Memphis Wednesday, Feb. 22, in federal court alleging the city has violated a 1978 consent decree “preventing domestic surveillance of lawful and peaceful protests and exercise of First Amendment rights.”

“The actions of the city of Memphis and/or the Memphis Police Department in connection with their investigation, stigmatization, recording and isolation of the plaintiffs were undertaken solely and exclusively for the purpose of silencing, harassing, and intimidating the plaintiffs’ First Amendment conduct, and is a clear and intentional violation of this court’s order,” the complaint reads.

The action seeks to hold the city in contempt of the nearly 40-year old original decree and award unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. It also calls for an order to dissolve the list and creating no lists in the future.

The 1978 consent decree and federal court order forbids the Memphis Police Department and city government from maintaining “personal information about any person unless it is collected in the course of a lawful investigation of criminal conduct and is relevant to such investigation.”

The lawsuit filed by attorney Bruce Kramer, who was the attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1978 case and consent decree -- with Elaine Blanchard, Keedran Franklin, Paul Garner and Bradley Watkins as plaintiffs in the current case -- points specifically to the city’s use since 2014 of Geofeedia -- software that maps who is making social media posts in an area, which platforms they are using and what they are posting.

Police have acknowledged in the past using such programs to keep tabs on potential protests which have increased in frequency in the last year.

In addition to the use of the software, the lawsuit cites surveillance and video recording of the plaintiffs including at a Tuesday protest against the list outside City Hall.

The decree 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 1978 lawsuit stemmed from a police domestic intelligence unit that had existed at least through the civil rights movement of the 1960s into the Vietnam War era protests of the 1970s in Memphis.

A University of Memphis student who had been involved in the protests sought his police file at a time when many Americans were seeking access to FBI and other law enforcement files through Watergate-era revelations of such units.

Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings has refused to say how the police department selected citizens to be on the City Hall list that requires anyone on the list to have a uniformed police officer by their side when they come to City Hall.

Many but not all of those on the list made public last week have been involved in local protests on a wide range of issues in the last year. Some of those protests have drawn the largest crowds seen for protests in Memphis in the last 40 years.

A group of protesters who blocked the entrance to the Valero refinery in South Memphis last month to protest an oil pipeline were put on the City Hall list by police the day after their protest. The list includes not only those arrested in the protest but those present but not arrested.

Rallings denied Tuesday that the list is politically motivated. He cited public safety concerns for the list and for police efforts to monitor protests – although he also specifically denied police have engaged in political surveillance.

“That is not a political list,” he said. “As the police director, my number one responsibility is to maintain public safety, not only in City Hall but in the streets of Memphis and in different places.”

Rallings is reviewing the list after Strickland sought the review a day after its public release. Strickland has said he doesn’t know how police came up with the names on the list. He signed a trespass authorization for his home after protesters held a “die-in” protest on his front lawn in December.

The list included more than the dozen or so protesters who took part in that protest.

Strickland said although he signed all four pages of the list, he left who was on the list to police.

Strickland said he was unaware that police had taken the names on the authorization for his home at some later point and put them on the City Hall list.

The civil case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Jon P. McCalla and Chief Magistrate Judge Diane K. Vescovo.