Saturday, September 24, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Paper Sues FBI for Info on Civil Rights Spy

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Memphis Commercial Appeal sued the FBI, saying the Bureau is unreasonably withholding information on the late Ernest Withers, a photographer who, unknown to the movement, was "advising the government of the plans and activities of civil rights leaders" during the struggles of the 1960s.

The newspaper says documents "concerning Mr. Withers' involvement in domestic surveillance will further the public's understanding of this unresolved issue."

"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," according to the federal FOIA complaint.

The newspaper sought documents from on Withers from the FBI in 2008. The agency released 115 pages of material on a 1977 corruption probe targeting the "noted photographer," but refused to release or even acknowledge the existence of Withers' informant file.

The Commercial Appeal amended its FOIA request to include the informant file and photographs Withers took for the FBI.

The FBI then released more than 200 more pages of materials, but refuses to release Withers' informant file and refuses to go to mediation, the newspaper says.

The Commercial Appeal says its article this year describing Withers' "activities as an FBI informant" led to similar stories from major news outlets, including The New York Times, making the Withers case an issue of public concern.

"Public examination of this issue will inform the ongoing debate about whether the government has gone too far in current domestic surveillance operations," the complaint states.

It wants to see the documents. It is represented by Charles Tobin with Holland Knight.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.