In the wake of revelations that a Boston Police spy agency tracked legal protests and academic events at Northeastern University, the police department this week refused a Gazette request to release any further documents on Mission Hill-area spying.
Earlier this year, the Washington, D.C.-based Partnership for Civil Justice Fund released hundreds of documents from the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, a controversial police anti-terrorism spy agency based at BPD headquarters on Tremont Street, that it obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.
Some of those documents, dating to 2011, revealed that BRIC monitored that year’s “Occupy Northeastern” event and other student protests, as well as public lectures and workshops at NU that had nothing to do with protest movements.
An ACLU/National Lawyers Guild lawsuit in 2012 revealed that BRIC spies were tracking other perfectly legal Boston events as early as 2007. That included branding a 2007 anti-war event at a JP church as a “criminal act” by “extremists,” as the Gazette previously reported.
The Partnership and ACLU/NLG reports came out of concerns that BRIC may be violating the First Amendment by monitoring and keeping records on legitimate political, academic and entertainment activity. BRIC has claimed it “safeguards” those rights and compiled its files only for “operational planning in the interest of assuring the safety and security of the demonstrators and the public.”
BRIC attracted controversy for spying on such legal, non-terroristic public events while failing to know anything at all about the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. It is one of many state and federally funded “fusion centers” around the country widely derided—including by a bipartisan U.S. Senate committee—as incompetent, wasteful threats to civil liberties.
The BRIC documents that were made public indicated that among its information sources were Twitter, websites and material published in the Mission Hill Gazette’s sister paper, the Jamaica Plain Gazette.
In August, the Gazette filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking any BRIC intelligence analysis reports, dating from 2005 to the present, containing the terms “Mission Hill” or “Jamaica Plain.”
Under state public records laws, BPD was required to respond within 10 days. However, it took 109 days to respond with a blanket refusal to release any such documents.
BPD claims that any such documents are exempt from public disclosure because they are “investigative materials.” The public records laws include an exemption for such materials, defined as “materials necessarily compiled out of the public view by law enforcement…the disclosure of which materials would probably so prejudice the possibility of effective law enforcement that such disclosure would not be in the public interest.”
That claim of exemption comes despite that fact that hundreds of such documents already have been released; that many of them involved legal activities that involved no law enforcement of any kind; and that among the known BRIC documents are information taken from public websites and from the pages of the Gazette itself.
The Gazette is appealing BPD’s refusal to release the documents with the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees the enforcement of public records laws.