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City unseals documents in ongoing lawsuit
Posted on 07/24/2018

As part of the ongoing lawsuit ACLU of Tennessee, Inc. vs. the City of Memphis, in an effort to be transparent, the City has decided to unseal all the documents previously filed under seal with the Court.

Some important facts are worth noting in regard to these documents:

No one’s Constitutional rights have been violated. We’re not even being accused of that. We are accused in the lawsuit of violating a 40-year-old consent decree.

No one has been prevented from exercising their First Amendment right to demonstrate, even if the demonstration took place without a permit.

A series of national and local events around that time — such as the unrest in Ferguson, the shooting of police in Dallas, a local fatal police shooting, the bridge protest — led MPD to start monitoring social media posts in the interest of public safety. This is a necessary and common technique in law enforcement; in fact, it’s viewed as a best practice. (For instance, when authorities in Charlottesville, Virginia reviewed their response to the events there in 2017, they recognized the blind spot that existed without social media monitoring and chose to start using it for later events.) As a direct result of this monitoring, events in Memphis have not resulted in violence.

The documents unsealed with the court today show that this activity started prior to the tenure of Mayor Jim Strickland and Police Director Michael Rallings.

As the documents show, there have been legitimate threats and concerns. Such as:

  • Information about the Ku Klux Klan possibly coming to a Black Lives Matter rally.
  • A threat to hack into the Memphis Zoo’s computer system.
  • A potential threat to ambush law enforcement in Shelby County.

Due to the limited time frame of the discovery in the case, the documents released today focus on monitoring of information related to Black Lives Matter events in late 2016 and early 2017. As we have said prior, MPD has monitored social media postings on other groups, including organizations with a wide variety of extremist views, as well.

Statement from City Chief Legal Officer Bruce McMullen:

“The ACLU of Tennessee’s lawsuit is based on its allegations of violations of a 1978 consent decree. Its interpretation of that 40-year old consent decree is out of step with modern police techniques. The consent decree was drafted before the internet – before smartphones, body cameras, or any type of digital cameras. MPD's observance of posts made on social media is consistent with best practices of law enforcement agencies across the country and is nothing more than good police work. The City is confident MPD's social media practices do not raise any constitutional issues. Furthermore, we have been in compliance with a fair and practical interpretation of the consent decree for almost forty years."

Statement from Memphis Police Director Michael W. Rallings:

“Monitoring these public social media posts is simply good police work, which has allowed us to make operations plans to protect both demonstrators and counter-demonstrators, keeping everyone safe without violence.

“I want to be clear: My officers have never interfered with anyone lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights. In fact, MPD has gone out of its way to ensure all demonstrations, even unlawful unpermitted ones, are allowed to move forward – from the 2016 bridge protest, to Valero, to the statue protests, Antifa, KKK, and Confederate 901.”

The documents are available here.

The ACLU-TN's motion for summary judgment is here and its response to our initial motion is here. Our response to the ACLU-TN's motion is here, and our reply to the ACLU-TN's response is here. The ACLU-TN's reply to our response is here.

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