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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Warns That Police Intimidation of Local Activists Undermines First Amendment Rights and Could Result in Potential Lawsuit

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Warning that police intimidation tactics undermine First Amendment rights, alienate members of the community, and could expose the City to the threat of a lawsuit, The Rutherford Institute has denounced recent efforts by police to target activists for interrogation, surveillance and intimidation. Specifically, the Charlottesville police department (CPD) has reportedly made unannounced visits to the homes or workplaces of activists; interrogated them about their plans for an upcoming Ku Klux Klan rally; asked them to provide names of other activists; and monitored social media to identify and target possible activists. Included among those targeted are: the KKK, Showing Up For Racial Justice, Black Lives Matter, Cville Stands United, Fraternal Order of the Alt Knights, Cville Pride and Care Bear Stare (which aims to position a large number of stuffed animals in the vicinity of the KKK rally as a counterstatement).

“No matter how well-intended the police’s motives might be, targeting activists for this kind of scrutiny, surveillance, and coercion undermines the police’s ability to be effective peace officers who are mindful of the constitutional limits on their activities,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Any response by government officials to protest activities must be predicated on a respect for the First Amendment, a commitment to nonviolence, and the rule of law.”

A debate in Charlottesville, Va., over the removal of two Confederate statues from public parks has resulted in heightened tensions, demonstrations and clashes between those who wish to retain the monuments for historic reasons and those who want them reviewed and view them as tributes to a segregationist past. The community is bracing for further disruptions in light of an announcement by a group associated with the Ku Klux Klan that they plan to stage a rally July 8 to protest the statue’s removal. Anticipating protests and demonstrations in opposition to the Klan rally, City police began contacting local progressive and anti-racist activists, questioning them about their plans for the day of the Klan rally and the identities of other activists who might be involved in demonstrations on July 8.

In cautioning the city not to exacerbate existing tensions by coercing citizens into forfeiting their First Amendment rights, Rutherford Institute attorneys point out that history has not looked favorably upon law enforcement agencies that have resorted to implicit threats, intimidation and surveillance to oppress, suppress, silence and monitor the lawful activities of American citizens. For example, in the 1950s and 60s, the Chicago Police Department’s “Red Squads” carried out surveillance on political and social activists and subjected them to harassment and abuse. Under the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, federal agents engaged in a prolonged campaign of surveillance and harassment of political organizations and activist leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. In 2005 and 2006, the Maryland State Police carried out 288 hours of surveillance on nonviolent death penalty and anti-war activists, classified 53 of them as terrorists, and entered their names and personal information into state and federal databases that track terrorism suspects. More recently, in 2016, in advance of the Republican National Convention, Cleveland police targeted activists for a “knock and talk” campaign as a clear effort to discourage individuals from exercising their freedom of expression and protest. 


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