Privacy SOS

State Police tweets neglect to mention all the other people acting #peacefully

The Massachusetts State Police was out in force over Fourth of July weekend, and wanted the world to see just how attentive its officers were to security concerns surrounding the celebrations at the Esplanade. The police's media relations people tweeted tens of pictures of everything from an image of the video downlink from its surveillance helicopter (pictured above), to press conferences, to a photo of kids playing with a K-9 dog.

And then something bizarre happened, attracting a bit of press attention and a Twitter outrage storm: police tweeted a number of images of protesters, with weird hashtags, in a manner that implied the protesters were potential threats to public safety — unlike the masses of other Massachusetts people who descended on the Esplanade to celebrate the Fourth.

Of course, public demonstrations are public, and anyone has a right to to photograph them. The ACLU has also fought to defend the right to videotape police. But just because something can be done, doesn't mean it should, particularly when it comes to our police forces doing it. What are the police trying to accomplish by doing this? These tweets seem like another sign that police consider peaceful expression a public threat.

Especially amidst the Boston Police Department's recent history of spying on people exercising their First Amendment rights, the tweets read as chilling to political expression and utterly tone deaf regarding the context.

The protest was about government surveillance, after all.

Here's the most offensive tweet:

Whether inadvertently or not, this tweet seems to imply that the police are protecting the public (a group that ostensibly excludes the protesters) from the people demonstrating their First Amendment rights. The pro-Fourth Amendment activists are a blurry mass in the distance; in between the viewer and the mob is a State Police officer shown in sharp relief, his back turned to 'monitor' the protest, his face obscured. The faceless state protects the cooperative, non-political citizen from the demonstrators.

But the protesters are the people, and the people are the protesters. Why the arbitrary distinction? Why the photography of activists? And weirdest of all, why the "#peacefully" hashtag?

The State Police didn't find it remarkable that other groups of people left the Esplanade #peacefully, but there were so many of them. Just look at all these people hanging out at the Fourth of July celebrations without hurting anyone! 

Fireworks goers leaving #peacefully:

Massachusetts police officials, who presumably left #peacefully:

Choir singers performed #peacefully:

State police officer who most likely left #peacefully, from behind:

Another State Police officer who presumably left the celebrations #peacefully:

A State Police officer with a cute dog, both of whom left #peacefully:

Governor Patrick talking to the press #peacefully:

Sheriff Cabral, Colonel Alben and the Governor, speaking to the media before leaving #peacefully sometime later that night:

A Massachusetts State Police SWAT team member, walking #peacefully:

Police on horses, riding #peacefully:

Transit Police Officer Richard Donahue with local news broadcaster Jack Williams, on stage at the Boston Pops, celebrating July Fourth #peacefully:

Even the State Police Bearcat, or tactical paramilitary vehicle, looked like it was chilling kind of #peacefully, if such a thing can be said about this kind of truck:

In other words, it appears as if everyone was behaving #peacefully, but the State Police only found fit to comment on the absence of violence among the protesters. Well, that's not exactly true. Some people were blowing stuff up. But it wasn't the Fourth Amendment activists.

If you want to support legislation to ban the police from spying on people based on First Amendment protected categories like speech or religion, take action to support the Free Speech Act in Massachusetts.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.