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Minnesota Law's Racial Justice Law Clinic and Co-Counsel File Lawsuit on Behalf of Minneapolis NAACP For Discriminatory Social Media Surveillance by Minneapolis Police Department

Today, the University of Minnesota Law School’s Racial Justice Law Clinic (“RJLC”) and the Law Office of Tim Phillips filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Minneapolis branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (“Minneapolis NAACP”) challenging the Minneapolis Police Department’s (“MPD”) use of covert social media accounts to surveil the Minneapolis NAACP and its members.

Nearly one year ago, on April 27, 2022, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (“MDHR”) released the results of an investigation into MPD misconduct. The report concluded that MPD officers used covert social media accounts to surveil the Minneapolis NAACP and its members for a decade without any investigative purpose. The officers posed as Black community members to interact with, criticize, and harass the Minneapolis NAACP and its members in an attempt to gain access to the organization. MPD officers also used the accounts to track the activity of Minneapolis NAACP members and push racist stereotypes about Black people. At the same time, MPD similarly tracked another Twin Cities legacy organization that advocates for the rights of Black people — the Urban League — while not tracking white organizations or white supremacist groups.

The complaint establishes that this racially discriminatory surveillance directed at a preeminent local Black organization was unconstitutional, violating the plaintiff’s First Amendment right to free expression and Fourteenth Amendment right to be free from racially discriminatory policing under the Equal Protection Clause. The complaint also alleges federal and state law claims under Title VI and the Minnesota Human Rights Law.

The MDHR report is the latest in a series of investigations confirming the racialized police practices and racist culture that MPD has maintained for years. Over the last twenty years, MPD’s practices have drawn local, state, national, and international investigations, many of which have reached the same conclusion. As a result of MDHR’s investigation, MDHR and the City of Minneapolis have entered into a consent decree. The consent decree does not, however, provide relief to the Minneapolis NAACP for MPD’s unlawful surveillance of the organization and its members.

“While the Minneapolis Police Department’s surveillance of our membership is not surprising, it is disappointing. We assumed that our work with MPD on public safety and community matters was being done in good faith. Instead, MPD simultaneously tried to bring us harm. To know MPD surveilled our members is deeply unnerving and upsetting,” said Cynthia Wilson, President of the Minneapolis NAACP. “Their actions violated our trust. MPD needs to be held accountable to prevent this from happening to anyone else.”

“For years, MPD maintained a policy of singling out the NAACP and its members for online surveillance and harassment because of their race and because of their advocacy on behalf of Black community members. This conduct is not only unconstitutional but also eerily reminiscent of past efforts across the country to surveil Black activists and organizations, from the Black Panthers to Black Lives Matter,” said Liliana Zaragoza, Associate Professor of Clinical Law and Director of the University of Minnesota Law School’s Racial Justice Law Clinic. “Our clients deserve safety, security, and freedom from both police harassment and the fear that they are being watched because of who they are and what they advocate for. The City and officers involved must be held accountable.”

“It is imperative that the City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Police Department understand that the surveillance and covert engagement by them was unjust and racist. As a community, we need to see accountability, but further, we are exposing the deeply troubling actions the city has taken in an attempt to halt a movement,” said Angela Rose Myers, former President of the Minneapolis NAACP. “We are suing as an example to all community members that these illegal and troubling actions are taking place and there is a legal avenue for redress. It’s time to say enough is enough, and if the city won’t take accountability for their actions, we will go to the courts.”

 

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