FBI records on Free Speech Movement must be disclosed

Freedom of Information | Feature | July 3, 1995

FBI records on Free Speech Movement must be disclosed

07/03/95

CALIFORNIA--Investigative records compiled by law enforcement agencies for no legitimate law enforcement purpose cannot be withheld under the law enforcement exemption to the federal Freedom of Information Act, the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) ruled in mid-June.

In a long-awaited ruling on FOI Act requests filed in 1981 and 1984, the court affirmed a 1991 opinion by U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Patel of San Francisco.

The appeals panel wrote that the FBI's continued surveillance of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and individuals who participated in the movement served no legitimate law enforcement purpose after January 1965. In that month, the agency had concluded by memorandum that demonstrations of the movement and the University of California were not controlled by communists.

From then on, the appeals panel noted, the FBI's purpose for compiling many of the records was to "curtail, harass and at times eliminate Communists and ultra liberal members on the faculty." It found that records were created out of dislike for personalities involved in the Free Speech Movement, including Clark Kerr, president of Berkeley and then chancellor of the University of California system, and out of a mania about communism.

The panel also ruled that some records which might be subject to withholding under the Law Enforcement Exemption concerning personal privacy (Exemption 7c) nevertheless must be released.

The public's interest in knowing how the FBI abused its law enforcement mandate by overzealously investigating a political protest movement outweighs privacy interests of individuals, the court said. It ordered the release of the names of the subjects investigated so that they could be compared to a roster of Free Speech Movement leaders.

Seth Rosenfeld, a San Francisco Examiner reporter, sought the records of the FBI's surveillance of the Free Speech Movement through Freedom of Information Act requests he filed in 1981 and 1984. (Rosenfeld v. FBI; Media Counsel: Thomas Steel, San Francisco)