In 2018, a judge ruled the city had violated a consent order barring it from gathering “political intelligence” on law-abiding citizens. iStockphoto.

The City of Memphis may have violated a federal consent decree meant to protect residents’ constitutional rights by refusing to add MLK50: Justice Through Journalism’s editors to its media contact email list, a national media rights organization told a federal court judge.

The allegations were made in a letter sent Monday by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to the U.S. District Court Judge Jon P. McCalla, who is overseeing the city’s compliance with the 1978 Kendrick Consent Decree; and Edward L. Stanton III, head of an independent monitoring team.

This letter follows one sent in March and another in April to the City of Memphis about its treatment of MLK50. The Reporters Committee contends the refusal violates the news outlet’s rights under the First Amendment, Tennessee Constitution, and the consent decree.

Monday was the deadline to submit public comments on modifications to the decree the city has proposed, in advance of a June 17 trial.

The decree, which bars the police department from surveilling people in ways that could violate their constitutional rights or freedom of speech, is the subject of an ongoing federal court case. In 2018, after a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, McCalla ruled that the police department violated several areas of the decree by using a fake Facebook profile to surveil local activists and by intercepting electronic communications. He also mandated the creation of the monitoring team.

Paul McAdoo, the Tennessee staff attorney for the Reporters Committee Local Legal Initiative, asserts the city also is violating the rights of MLK50 journalists.

“Not having the same access to information available to other members of the media whom the City has included on its media advisory list interferes with MLK50 and its journalists’ First Amendment rights and is done to deter their coverage of the City, both of which are violations of the Kendrick Consent Decree,” McAdoo wrote.

During the 2018 trial, Police Sgt. Timothy Reynolds admitted to following MLK 50 editor and publisher Wendi C. Thomas on social media as he gathered intel on Black Lives Matter and other activist movements. He did so while posing as “Bob Smith,” who he indicated was a “person of color.” Reynolds is white.

A Facebook screenshot from local activist Hunter Demster, positioned next to the “Bob Smith” profile image.

A story about the trial in The Commercial Appeal said Reynolds acknowledged that he friended hundreds of people using his alias, including activists Paul Garner and Tami Sawyer, now a county commissioner. He also admitted portraying himself as “ man of color.”

The city is seeking modification of the consent decree, saying it hinders the department’s ability to use modern technology to fight crime.

Excerpts from the letters that the Reporters Committee has sent to the City of Memphis on MLK50’s behalf:

Paul McAdoo to Jennifer Sink, chief legal officer for the City of Memphis
March 16, 2020

“I write to you in the hope that you can remedy this infringing, discriminatory, and possibly retaliatory decision by the City.”

“The City’s refusal may be motivated by its apparent dislike of MLK50’s coverage of the City.”

“In June 2017, the City’s Chief Communications Officer, Ursula Madden said to Thomas in an email that Thomas had “demonstrated, particularly on social media, that you are not objective when it comes to Mayor Strickland.”

“Regardless of the City’s motivation for its refusal, the City’s actions violate MLK50’s First Amendment and Tennessee Constitutional rights.”

Paul McAdoo to Jennifer Sink, chief legal officer for the City of Memphis
April 13, 2020

“The City also has exacerbated the problem by refusing to add MLK50 to the list of journalists who are receiving emails with log-in information for the virtual press conferences being held by the Joint COVID-19 Task Force, despite a request from Shelby County (the “County”) that it do so.”

“And the City’s recent course of conduct … only reinforce the conclusion that the City is trying to punish MLK50 for the content of past coverage to which the City takes exception.”

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.

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