ACLU Urges CA Attorney General to Protect Free Speech and Privacy Rights

SAN DIEGO – The three California ACLU affiliates wrote California Attorney General Bill Lockyer today urging him to reconsider his apparent decision not to address the lack of local law enforcement policy regulating surveillance of political activity.

The ACLU letter included a Public Records Act request seeking documents substantiating claims by the attorney general’s office that California law enforcement has full knowledge of the laws governing surveillance of political activity.

In July 2006, the ACLU of Northern California released a report documenting increased surveillance of political activity by California law enforcement and the lack of appropriate policies regulating such activity. The attorney general’s office pledged in the media to work with the ACLU to protect Californians’ privacy and free speech rights. Then, just weeks later, the attorney general’s office reversed its position, declining to take up the issue and suggesting that the ACLU await the arrival of a new attorney general.

“We are very concerned that public commitments made by the attorney general’s office while under the media spotlight have given way to a private decision to take no additional action,” said the letter from directors of the ACLU-NC, the ACLU of Southern California and the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “While we are fully aware that your term for attorney general ends in January, until that time you are still the top law enforcement officer in the state with constitutional responsibility to ensure Californians’ rights are adequately protected and enforced. We urge you to reconsider your apparent decision to take no further steps on this issue or in response to the issues raised in our report.”

In a statement provided to the media following the publication of the ACLU report The State of Surveillance: Government Monitoring of Political Activity in Northern and Central California, Lockyer spokesperson Tom Dressler said, “[The attorney general] by no means has reached a comfort level. …There is room for improvement, and we look forward to working with the ACLU and other interested parties to address legitimate issues raised in the report.”

The ACLU-Northern California’s report demonstrates the increase in surveillance of First Amendment protected activity by federal, state, and local officials in California and documents a lack of law enforcement policies and knowledge about constitutional protections and privacy rights. Of the 103 law enforcement agencies surveyed statewide, only 8 police or sheriff’s departments indicated they had used or had any awareness of the attorney general’s 2003 manual on surveillance.

“The report showed that law enforcement agencies in California have not been adequately trained on when they can and can’t monitor political activity,” said Mark Schlosberg, the author of the surveillance report. “While we appreciate the attorney general’s public statements that law enforcement must not monitor political activity in the absence of reasonable suspicion of a crime, those words need to be backed up with action aimed at improving police practices throughout California.”