EUGENE, Ore. (CN) — In a lawsuit against Oregon’s attorney general, one of her former investigators says he was fired for following orders: reporting state Department of Justice’s director of civil rights for posting about “potentially racist and anti-police shootings” on Twitter.
The federal lawsuit ratchets up the controversy that began in November 2015, when it was revealed that the state Department of Justice investigated its own director of civil rights in a “threat assessment” search.
The head of Portland’s Urban League, Nkenge Harmon Johnson, wrote an open letter to Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, saying her husband Erious Johnson had been profiled by investigators searching social media for the hashtags #blacklivesmatter, #DontShootPDX, and #FuckthePolice.
Erious Johnson sued Rosenblum and four other Department of Justice officials in October 2016, alleging constitutional violations. In that lawsuit, Erious Johnson said that James R. Williams, an investigator with the department’s Criminal Justice Division, found Johnson’s image while searching for content related to Black Lives Matter using a program called Digital Stakeout, along with a tweet Williams believed was “threatening to police.”
That tweet, posted on Martin Luther King Day of 2015, featured the logo of rap group Public Enemy – a stenciled figure in crosshairs – along with the text “Consider yourselves … WARNED!!!”
The line comes from the spoken intro to Public Enemy’s 1988 album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” and does not specifically threaten anyone, police or otherwise.
Johnson’s lawsuit is pending in Federal Court.
When news of the surveillance became public, Rosenblum responded the same day, calling the allegations “powerful and disheartening” and asked for a private investigation. She also announced that she had put one employee on leave, without naming the employee.
It was Williams. In a March 28 federal complaint, the investigator claims that Oregon and Rosenblum retaliated for his whistleblowing by suspending and firing him without due process.
Williams says he was trained to use the Digital Stakeout software to search for the social media activity of anti-government organizations, including motorcycle gangs, radical environmentalists and white supremacist groups. He worked for the state’s TITAN Fusion Center Unit, which collaborates with other agencies to share information about potential threats.
In doing so, he says in the 14-page complaint, he was “contacted by the Bonneville Dam Administration to investigate any possible planned protests regarding the release of the movie ‘Straight out of Compton’ based on concerning events throughout the United States that had been occurring based on the release of the film.”
Williams searched for the hashtags #blacklivesmatter and #fuckthepolice based on this information, according to the complaint. “During the search, plaintiff noticed several perceived racist and anti-police postings. Several of these postings showed violence toward police officers and small children with guns held to their heads by police officers.”
The complaint continues: “Researching one of the images led plaintiff to the open source twitter profile of a person he later learned to be Erious Johnson, Jr., the ethics and civil rights attorney for the Department of Justice. In researching the image, plaintiff reviewed other potentially racist and anti-police postings on Mr. Johnson’s open source twitter site.”
Williams says sought the advice of his supervisor, who told him he should tell Special Agent in Charge David Kirby. Kirby, also a defendant in Johnson’s lawsuit, asked Williams to write up a memo about his findings, which he did.
Williams says that around the same time, he and his colleagues were told at a human resources meeting that they should notify supervisors if they find “offensive postings on social media” by Department of Justice employees.
A month after he wrote up and delivered his memo, the department put Williams on administrative leave, investigated him, and he was fired in August 2016.
He seeks reinstatement, expungement of her personnel file, lost wages and benefits, front pay, costs and fees, and punitive damages for civil rights violations, retaliation and pain and suffering.
He is represented by Elizabeth Lemoine in Portland.