National Orgs Call for Strong Anti-Police Spying Bill in Maryland After Scandal

Police in riot gear in St. Paul
2008 Political Conventions Report
September 1, 2008
Preventive Detention, at What Cost?
July 14, 2009

Twenty national organizations sent a letter to members of the Maryland General Assembly and Governor O’Malley calling for a strong bill to prohibit police spying on political groups without a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and to release all information in police files to people who were wrongly investigated. Specifically, the organizations endorsed The Freedom of Association and Assembly Protection Act (HB 182/SB256). There is concern that legislators will settle for a weaker measure that does not apply to all police forces in Maryland and does not require the full disclosure of all wrongful surveillance by police in the past.

News that Maryland state police agents had infiltrated anti-war, consumer protection and other political groups hardly raised eyebrows among activists around the country. “This isn’t new, but it is un-constitutional” said Sue Udry, director of the Defending Dissent Foundation, a small civil liberties organization that was the target of surveillance by the FBI and various local police departments in the 1960’s resulting in a 132,000 page file. More recently, members and affiliates of Peace Action found that they, as well as hundreds of other peace activists were subject to Pentagon surveillance and inclusion in the Talon database. Other groups signing the letter have also been targets of unconstitutional investigations by federal, state and local police agencies.

“Because activist groups have long been targets of unconstitutional surveillance, these national organizations are watching what happens in Maryland closely, and strongly encourage the General Assembly to pass The Freedom of Association and Assembly Protection Act”, said Udry. “We think Maryland can and should blaze the trail for other states and even Congress by passing The Freedom of Association and Assembly Protection Act”.

The text of the letter is below:

Open Letter to the Maryland General Assembly

A strong democracy depends on citizen engagement. Unfortunately, sometimes police agencies get worried that citizens are too engaged, and appoint themselves regulators of political activity. It isn’t new – but it is un-Constitutional.

Last summer, the ACLU of Maryland discovered that the Maryland State Police had spied on people and groups involved in a wide range of political activities, collected criminal intelligence dossiers on their political beliefs and activities, and entered their names into a criminal database, listing them as “terrorists”. All this was undertaken without any evidence or even suspicion of any illegal activity. These people were not criminals, and certainly not “terrorists” by any definition of the word, yet other state, local and federal police agencies may have accessed their names and information because post 9-11 reforms have encouraged police agencies to share information more freely.

Fortunately, the people of Maryland as well as most lawmakers and the media expressed outrage that the police would so blatantly violate the Constitution. We congratulate the General Assembly for its willingness to confront the problem and to consider strong legislation that will protect the democratic rights of people across the ideological spectrum. We urge the General Assembly to pass The Freedom of Association and Assembly Protection Act (HB 182/SB256). The bill prohibits police from spying on political groups and their activities or compiling or sharing criminal dossiers about them without a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

Why do the national advocacy organizations signing on to this letter care about what happens in Maryland? Of course, many of our organizations have members and chapters in Maryland, but the victims of the MSP spy scandal are not just Marylanders; people from California, Missouri, New York, DC, and Virginia were also swept up in the net of surveillance and unjustly listed in state files as “terrorists”. We also suspect that other state and local police agencies, awash in Homeland Security dollars like the Maryland police, also went looking in all the wrong places for terrorists. We look to the Maryland General Assembly to set an example for other states and encourage them to pass this excellent bill without making any changes.

It is unfortunate that the Maryland state police have not conducted a thorough review of their criminal intelligence database to identify and notify all wrongful targets of the spying program. The Freedom of Association and Assembly Act requires such a review, and until it is undertaken, every Marylander who has attended a rally or political meeting, signed a petition or otherwise expressed a political view, will have to wonder if they too are in police files. Come to think of it, given the unfettered scope of the spying that has come to light so far, we all have to be worried.
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
Bill of Rights Defense Committee
Campaign for Fresh Air & Clean Politics
Center for Democracy and Technology
CodePink, Women for Peace
Defending Dissent Foundation
H.S. Power & Light Latino Faith Initiative
Liberty Coalition
National Immigrant Solidarity Network
National Organization for Women (NOW)
Peace Action
Radio Free Maine
Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF)
United Electrical Workers Union (UE)
United for Peace and Justice
Veterans for Peace
Washington Peace Center