Authorities in Tennessee are admitting it was a mistake to label a public letter from the American Civil Liberties Union as “suspicious” in a map that tracks terrorism and criminal information. The letter encouraged area public-school administrators to recognize that numerous religions celebrate the holiday season, not just Christianity.

The ACLU’s Tennessee chapter learned Tuesday that a local police-run intelligence fusion center responsible for collecting and analyzing information about possible terrorist threats had classified the letter under “terrorism events and other suspicious activity.” Leaders of the civil liberties group – which has campaigned against excessive government surveillance for decades, at times becoming a target of police spying itself – reacted angrily, calling the designation “outrageous.”

A senior police official said personnel simply intended to circulate a news story about the letter, but the ACLU still wants to know why communications with the public that deal with education policy and not public safety are being monitored by a fusion center. Dozens of the centers sprang up after Sept. 11 for local, state and federal law enforcement to exchange data and terrorism tips. Washington has poured more than $426 million into supporting fusion centers since 2004.

From a statement by the ACLU chapter’s executive director, Hedy Weinberg:

It is deeply disturbing that Tennessee’s fusion center is tracking First Amendment-protected activity. … Religious freedom is a founding principle in our Constitution – not fodder for overzealous law enforcement.

Tennessee’s counterterrorism initiatives recently made a high-profile appearance in “Monitoring America,” the latest installment in an ongoing series of investigative stories from the Washington Post examining the massive and costly new intelligence architecture created after Sept. 11 to prevent terrorism attacks.

Reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin found that Memphis had launched a “data revolution” for intelligence purposes, sucking up customer names and addresses from a local utility company, storing away details from incoming emergency 911 calls and mining uploaded crime reports for the phone numbers of victims, suspects and witnesses. According to the story:

The [federal Department of Homeland Security] helped Memphis buy surveillance cameras that monitor residents near high-crime housing projects, problematic street corners, and bridges and other critical infrastructure. It helped pay for license-plate readers and defrayed some of the cost of setting up Memphis’s crime-analysis center. All together it has given Memphis $11 million since 2003 in homeland security grants, most of which the city has used to fight crime.

A local newspaper piled on last weekend reporting that more than three decades ago the Memphis Police Department had agreed to a ban on political surveillance following a 1976 lawsuit that accused law enforcement of unfairly spying on war demonstrators and civil-rights activists. The department at that time reportedly burned six filing cabinets filled with spy files. But the prohibition on political-intelligence gathering had not been fully incorporated into department policies and procedures until this week after the Memphis Commercial Appeal story surfaced.

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.