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ACLU placed on Tennessee terror map for letter to schools

By Daniel Tencer
Thursday, December 23, 2010 18:40 EDT
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The ACLU of Tennessee says it ended up on a map of potential terrorist threats after it sent a letter to school superintendents asking them to be “inclusive” in their holiday celebrations.

The civil rights group says it found itself on the Tennessee Fusion Center’s map identified under the category “terrorism events and other suspicious activity,” with the explanation “ACLU cautions Tennessee schools about observing ‘one religious holiday.’”

“It is deeply disturbing that Tennessee’s fusion center is tracking First Amendment-protected activity,” Hedy Weinberg, executive director of ACLU-Tennessee, said in a statement. “Equating a group’s attempts to protect religious freedom in Tennessee with suspicious activity related to terrorism is outrageous. Religious freedom is a founding principle in our Constitution—not fodder for overzealous law enforcement.”

State fusion centers were set up after 9/11 to help states collect and share information on potential security threats. The ACLU has previously warned of “the potential dangers of fusion centers, including their ambiguous lines of authority, excessive secrecy, troubling private-sector and military roles and a bent toward collection of information about innocent activities and data mining.”

A fusion center spokesman told the Nashville City Paper that it was a mistake to have labeled the ACLU’s letter as a “terrorist” event and said the tag on the map should have been labeled “general information.”

But the City Paper found that the ACLU icon had instead been reclassified as “general terrorism news.”

“You can argue that you don’t like the word terrorism in there, but it’s just general news that’s provided,” fusion center spokesman Mike Browning responded to City Paper. “That’s the general news category. It doesn’t have anything to do with terrorism. It was just provided to schools as general information.”

“After the City Paper pointed out to Browning that the entire map was labeled ‘terrorism events and other suspicious activity’ on the website, that was changed to ‘open source news reports,’” the paper reported.

As of Thursday evening, the icon identifying the ACLU appeared to have been removed from the map altogether.

According to the ACLU, the controversy started after the group received “numerous” complaints from families around Tennessee complaining of overtly religious Christmas events in public schools.

The group responded with a letter to school superintendents arguing that “while public schools can teach about religion and religious holidays, public schools may not engage in indoctrination.”

The letter went on to say that the ACLU “welcomes holiday celebrations that teach children about a variety of holidays. We believe, however, that holiday celebrations that focus primarily on one religious holiday can result in indoctrination as well as a sense within students who do not share that religion of being outsiders to the school.”

The ACLU’s Wenberg told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that she’s taking the fusion center “at their word” that the terrorism designation was a mistake.

“I have not heard a good explanation for why school resource officers, who have a very important job in schools, would at all be interested or need to know about the letter we sent to local school superintendents about the need to keep holiday celebrations all inclusive,” she added.

 
 
 
 
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