Shay Horse / AP

Oregon AG ‘appalled’ by state’s surveillance of Black Lives Matter

Members of Ellen Rosenblum’s office monitored civil rights Twitter hashtags, which the ACLU called ‘deeply disturbing’

Oregon’s Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum is investigating the state’s digital surveillance of Twitter users who wrote #BlackLivesMatter and other hashtags, saying she was “appalled” by her department's profiling.

She wrote to local civil rights leaders, including the president of the Urban League of Portland, on Tuesday saying Oregon's Criminal Justice Division, which she supervises, monitored the Twitter feeds of a number of residents.

The Black Lives Matter movement grew out of the large demonstrations in cities such as New York, Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, over police killings of unarmed black men.

“When I initially heard about this incident I was appalled,” Rosenblum wrote in her letter on Tuesday. She gave no details on the scope of the digital monitoring. The incident comes as the attorney general is due to report the findings of a statewide task force she is leading on police profiling in Oregon to the legislature on Dec. 1.

The American Civil Liberties Union called the surveillance “deeply disturbing” in a Wednesday press release.

“Surveilling people based on their political ideas undercuts the fundamental freedoms that our country was founded on. If people can be targeted for speech and activities protected by the First Amendment, then they will be reluctant to speak or write openly about their beliefs,” the ACLU said.

“And let’s not miss that this surveillance … targeting people who use #BlackLivesMatter on social media throws open the door to racial profiling because the movement is black-led,” the group added.

The revelation also comes amid a wave of demonstrations at U.S. colleges including Yale and the University of Missouri over the treatment of minority students.

The Urban League of Portland said among those targeted in the surveillance was the Justice Department's own director of civil rights, Erious Johnson, who works in Rosenblum's office and is married to Nkenge Harmon Johnson, the league's president.

In a letter to the attorney general on Tuesday, the league's president echoed the ACLU, saying it was “improper, and potentially unlawful” for state investigators to target anyone “merely for expressing a viewpoint, or for being a part of a social movement.”

Rosenblum said in her letter she shares Johnson's concerns. She has asked a Portland lawyer to conduct an investigation into improper conduct, her office said.

The ACLU said it had signed on to a letter from the Urban League of Portland and others encouraging Oregon’s attorney general to take immediate action and support a full and transparent investigation into these activities. 

“Oregonians need to know the full extent of the state’s involvement in this likely illegal and racially based surveillance. In addition to calling for an investigation, we are preparing to file records requests we hope will help reveal the scope of the program and who else has been caught up in this dragnet,” the ACLU said in its statement.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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