Today, civil rights, civil liberties, and racial justice organizations sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas regarding the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) “domestic violent extremism” label, standards for collecting and disseminating information to state and local law enforcement agencies, and the impacts this can have particularly on disparately surveilled and policed communities.
The term “domestic violent extremism” (DVE) is overly broad and lacks specific legal parameters and reliable factual and evidentiary thresholds. Moreover, DHS has lax policies that allow intelligence information to be collected under a low “reasonable belief” standard that does not require corroboration or verification. Some of the information collected may be protected activity under the First Amendment.
Recent events in Atlanta make clear that lax DHS standards and intelligence practices have contributed to concerning arrests and prosecution of individuals associated with a movement to stop the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center (“Cop City” or “the Atlanta Training Center”). Between December 2022 and May 2023, Georgia authorities obtained at least 17 arrest warrants based on sworn affidavits describing Defend the Atlanta Forest (DTAF)—which opposes Cop City—as “a group classified by the United States Department of Homeland Security as Domestic Violent Extremists.” These affidavits—which targeted protesters, a legal observer, and three operators of a nonprofit bail fund— were incorrect: DHS has never classified or designated DTAF as a DVE group.
These events are the latest example of inadequate DHS protections for people’s constitutional rights as they starkly illustrate the dangers of DHS’s use of vague, overbroad, and stigmatizing terms like “domestic violent extremist” and “militant” to describe individuals who may be engaged in protected First Amendment activity. DHS policy effectively permits the monitoring, collection, and retention of a broad range of First Amendment-protected speech, association, and activity and risks contributing to violations of other constitutional rights.
Together, these failings have long contributed to wrongful federal surveillance and investigations of disparately policed Black, Brown, and Muslim communities, environmental activists, and immigrants. The risk of harm caused by DHS is exacerbated by the racially discriminatory and other systemic unconstitutional practices by state and local law enforcement agencies, as DOJ investigations have repeatedly shown. We urge DHS to adopt more stringent standards for its collection and dissemination of information and ensure its intelligence products do not contribute to abuse by local and state authorities. We also urge DHS to provide full transparency and accountability regarding information it has shared with state and local law enforcement relating to individuals’ activities connected to Cop City.
Read the full letter here.
Founded in 1940, the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) is the nation’s first civil rights law organization. LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute is a multi-disciplinary and collaborative hub within LDF that launches targeted campaigns and undertakes innovative research to shape the civil rights narrative. In media attributions, please refer to us as the Legal Defense Fund or LDF. Please note that LDF has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights.