A newspaper in Memphis, Tenn., is suing the FBI over access to documents about civil rights era photographer Ernest Withers and his reported domestic surveillance work for law enforcement authorities.
The Commercial Appeal, represented by Holland & Knight, wants the FBI to produce Withers' informant file and photographs he submitted to the bureau, according to a suit the newspaper filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia this month.
The newspaper’s lawyers, including Charles Tobin, chair of Holland & Knight’s national media practice, said in the suit that the documents will “help determine what our government was up to when it recruited citizens to surreptitiously gather information about the civil rights movement.”
Tobin said “serious questions remain about the government’s motives and actions in spying on the civil rights movement.” Tobin was not immediately reached for comment this afternoon. The Justice Department has not yet responded to the suit, filed under the Freedom of Information Act.
“The country continues to examine whether the government’s surveillance of civil rights leaders reflected a genuine concern for public safety or, instead, an effort to harass citizens and squelch protest,” the suit said. A copy of the complaint is here.
The Commercial Appeal first submitted a records request to the FBI, asking for documents pertaining to Withers, in February 2008. In March 2009, the FBI released 115 pages. One of the documents included Withers’ FBI informant number. The newspaper earlier fought for additional records outside of court.
In September, the newspaper published an article detailing Withers’ activity as an FBI informant. The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR subsequently published similar articles about Withers.
Mediation between the newspaper and the FBI failed in October, according to the suit. The FBI would only disclose additional information about Withers’ domestic surveillance work with his “consent or under circumstances that the FBI does not believe apply to this case,” the lawsuit said. Withers died in 2007.