A state government anti-terrorism agency placed the Tennessee ACLU on a map of “terrorism events and other suspicious activity” for sending a letter warning public schools not to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday.
The ACLU expressed outrage Tuesday over its appearance on the Tennessee Fusion Center’s map, saying it “raises the specter that the government is once again tracking innocent Americans.”
“It is deeply disturbing that Tennessee’s fusion center is tracking First Amendment-protected activity,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-Tennessee’s executive director. “Equating a group’s attempts to protect religious freedom in Tennessee with suspicious activity related to terrorism is outrageous. Religious freedom is a founding principle in our Constitution — not fodder for overzealous law enforcement.”
The Tennessee Fusion Center was created in 2007, one of many around the country established after 9/11 to help state agencies share and analyze information about terrorism and other threats.
“While the ostensible purpose of fusion centers, to improve sharing of anti-terrorism intelligence among different levels and arms of government, is legitimate and important, using the centers to monitor protected First Amendment activity clearly crosses the line,” the ACLU said in a news release.
On the Fusion Center’s website, the blinking map of Tennessee shows flashing icons. Rolling a computer’s cursor over the icons results in explanations popping up on the screen, none of which have anything to do with major terrorist plots. The ACLU letter was highlighted under the icon for “suspicious activity.”
“ACLU cautions Tennessee schools about observing ‘one religious holiday,’” the website’s explanation reads.
Also among the map’s highlights: “McMinn County Teen Brings Gun to School,” and “Turkish National Salih Acarbulut Indicted in Chattanooga for Alleged $12 million Ponzi Scheme.”
Mike Browning, a spokesman for the Fusion Center, said “that was a mistake” to label the ACLU letter as a suspicious activity. He said the Fusion Center meant to use the icon that means merely general information. The icon was changed after the ACLU sent its news release, he said.
“It’s still on the map,” Browning told The City Paper. “It has been reclassified into the general information category.”
But a look at the website shows there is no icon for general information. Instead, the icon for the ACLU letter now signifies “general terrorism news,” according to the website’s legend.
Browning said, “You can argue that you don’t like the word terrorism in there, but it’s just general news that’s provided. That’s the general news category. It doesn’t have anything to do with terrorism. It was just provided to schools as general information.”
After The City Paper pointed out to Browning that the entire map was labeled “terrorism events and other suspicious activity” on the website, that was changed to “open source news reports.”
“We were just forwarding the news release per se as general information to all schools,” Browning said, although he could not explain why officials deemed it necessary to forward the information. “We weren’t implying anything by posting it. For the customers who use the map, for law enforcement, emergency management and school resource officers — for the ones who use this, they know what it’s about.”
The ACLU sent its letter on Christmas earlier this month to 137 school superintendents in Tennessee. The letter cautioned that holiday celebrations focusing primarily on one religious holiday amount to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
The ACLU said it was responding to a number of complaints from families about school Christmas party activities.
“The Fusion Center’s tracking of protected First Amendment activity raises profound civil liberties concerns regarding individual privacy, freedom of speech and religious freedom,” Weinberg said. “We need only look back at our history to be reminded that domestic surveillance is unacceptable. The Tennessee Fusion Center’s classification of the ACLU letter as suspicious raises the specter that the government is once again tracking innocent Americans who are merely exercising the rights integral to a democratic society, returning us to a dangerous chapter in our country’s history.”