A chap whose job was to investigate threats on social networks is suing the Oregon Department of Justice – for allegedly retaliating against him after his online sleuthing led him to the agency's own director of civil rights.
In September 2015, James R Williams was working for the Oregon TITAN Fusion Center Unit, one of America's many intelligence-gathering centers that share tip-offs and other information between government agencies. They were created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks by Homeland Security and the US Department of Justice.
According to Williams' lawsuit, filed on Tuesday in Oregon, he was responsible for following up reports of serious threats from police and other investigators, civilian agencies, and citizens. His responsibilities included "open source media searches and investigation of backgrounds of anti-government individuals and their activities to identify threats."
Williams was asked to evaluate Motorola's Digital Stakeout software, which Moto touts as a way to "identify and anticipate threats to people, places and brands on social media, deep web and dark web." After an hour of training, he was instructed to test the software by searching for information about "traditionally anti-government organizations" such as "KKK, Skinheads, ELF, ALF, Hells Angels and Gypsy Jokers."
When the Bonneville Dam Administration – yes, really – asked for information about potential protests coinciding with the release of the movie Straight Outta Compton – we're not making this up – Williams searched for posts from Salem, Oregon, using the hashtags "blacklivesmatter" and "fuckthepolice," and information related to other organizations believed to be hostile to authorities.
A tweet tagged "blacklivesmatter" ended up pointing inside the Oregon Department of Justice.
"Researching one of the images led [Williams] to the open source Twitter profile of a person [Williams] later learned to be Erious Johnson Jr, the ethics and civil rights attorney for the Department of Justice," the complaint says.
This information was passed up the chain of command and, after supervisors concurred that the postings were offensive and inappropriate, Williams was instructed to write a memo outlining the issue to present to Johnson. A meeting with Johnson followed in October 2015, and a month later Williams was placed on leave. Subsequently referred for further training, Williams was fired in August 2016.
Johnson acknowledged tweeting with the #blacklivesmatter hashtag in a racial discrimination and hostile workplace complaint he filed with Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industries against the agency in April 2016. "Coworkers, and agents of my employer, designated me a 'threat' to public safety based on a racially motivated 'threat assessment' for my use of the Twitter hashtag #blacklivesmatter," Johnson's complaint says.
In October that year, Johnson followed up with a lawsuit in US District Court in Eugene, Oregon, alleging that the Oregon Department of Justice violated his constitutional rights for targeting political speech, and demanding damages and his legal bills paid.
Williams is one of a group of defendants in Johnson's lawsuit, which also names Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, Oregon Deputy Attorney General Frederick Boss, Oregon DoJ chief counsel Darin Tweedt, and Oregon DoJ special agent David Kirby.
Rosenblum did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, Williams is seeking damages for, among other things, "mental anguish and distress, humiliation, loss of public esteem ... and loss of reputation in the community." ®