ACLU Defends Seattle's Ban on Police Spying on Political Groups

News Release: 
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dear Councilmember,

You have no doubt read about an effort by some police officials to repeal or significantly modify Seattle's Police Intelligence Ordinance. I am writing to let you know that the American Civil Liberties Union will vigorously oppose any attempt to weaken this important law, a law that does not hinder effective law enforcement.

The Seattle City Council adopted the Police Intelligence Ordinance in 1979 in response to revelations of widespread abuses by police in compiling secret files on hundreds of individuals and groups engaged in lawful political activities. A leading advocate of the law's passage was the Coalition on Government Spying, formed by the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, and the American Friends Service Committee. Intelligence files obtained through a lawsuit filed by the Coalition showed a disturbing pattern of gathering information about political meetings, demonstrations, travel plans, and alleged associates -- all without connection to any criminal activity.

The Police Intelligence Ordinance was crafted both to protect people's First Amendment rights and to allow police to protect the public. It explicitly provides that police can investigate individuals or political organizations when there is a credible belief they may be engaged in criminal behavior. It makes special provision for the need to protect visiting dignitaries. What it does not allow is for police to collect information on people solely on the basis of their political views and actions.

For the government to collect information about people's political and community activities without a reasonable suspicion that they are involved in criminal activity is unacceptable in a free society. When police fail to distinguish between political advocacy and threats to public safety, it chills the ability of citizens to speak out and to stand up for their beliefs.

Police officials are now claiming that the Ordinance somehow is at fault for the difficulties they experienced in responding to the WTO protests last fall. This is clearly an attempt to scapegoat the law for their own failures to plan adequately for the protests. Police did not need new powers to gather more political intelligence; they needed to prepare more intelligently to handle the well-known likelihood of large-scale protest, including civil disobedience.

The ACLU looks forward to your support in defending the rights of Seattle's citizens to engage in lawful political activities free of government surveillance.


Kathleen Taylor
Executive Director