Government surveillance of activists associated with the Black Lives Matter movement constitutes a serious threat to the right to peaceful protest, a fundamental component of free expression, PEN American Center said today.

Several journalists have uncovered evidence that the government is engaged in regular monitoring of the Black Lives Matter movement. Freedom of Information Act requests filed by The Intercept and VICE News unearthed documents from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) showing that they conduct surveillance via social media of protest events and individuals involved in the movement, including DeRay Mckesson. Mckesson and Johnetta (Netta) Elzie, who are activists and citizen journalists, received the 2015 Howard Zinn Freedom to Write Award from PEN New England, a chapter of PEN American Center. The documents indicate that DHS has also monitored protesters’ movements during demonstrations, and has monitored protest events even if their own assessments state they are expected to be peaceful.

“Spying on human rights activists takes a chapter from the dark days of COINTELPRO, when the FBI kept extensive files on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many other civil rights leaders,” said Katy Glenn Bass, deputy director of PEN’s free expression programs. “What’s more, this broad surveillance of social media deters people from exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and free assembly. This has to stop immediately.”