Oregon DOJ Investigates Employee for Tweeting Public Enemy Lyrics, Thought They Were a ‘Threat’ Against Police

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Black Lives Matter Protest in Portland, Ore. on Aug. 12, 2015. Photo by Conrad Wilson/OPB
Black Lives Matter protest in Portland, Ore. on Aug. 12, 2015.

On April 6, the Oregon Department of Justice released the results of its investigation concerning the surveillance of Oregonians using the Black Lives Matter hashtag on Twitter.

The investigation was opened after an unnamed DOJ employee filed a report against Erious Johnson Jr., who is the Justice Department’s top civil rights lawyer,  for tweeting the phrase “consider yourself…WARNED.” The employee took this as a legitimate threat against law enforcement and alerted his supervisor. The tweet was not a threat, however, but simply a phrase popularized by the 80’s rap group Public Enemy. An image of the band’s logo also accompanied the tweet.

A new surveillance tool called Digital Stakeout was then used to monitor Johnson’s tweets and others. The program searches social media for specific keywords within a certain geographic region. “Black Lives Matter,” “blac block,” and “KKK” are just a few of the many terms that were searched. The terms deemed as “threats” were clearly comments on pop culture and gentrification.

Nkenge Harmon Johnson, Urban League President and wife of Erious Johnson Jr., alerted the DOJ to the unethical searches and urged that the matter be investigated.

“It is improper, and potentially unlawful, for the Oregon Department of Justice to conduct surveillance and investigations on an Oregonian merely for expressing a viewpoint, or for being a part of a social movement,” she wrote on Nov. 10.

Carolyn Walker of the Portland law firm Stoel Rives prepared the DOJ report for  Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who wanted to know why citizens were being monitored in the first place. The report concluded that “intelligence unit employees have not received adequate cultural competency training, or training on anti-racial profiling, hidden or implicit bias, and/or diversity training.”

According to the report, the searches violated a state law banning investigators from monitoring and gathering information based on political speech. The searches also infringed upon internal Justice Department policies.

“It appears to have been an isolated incident prompted by the testing of the software Digital Stakeout, and I do not believe that a further department-wide internal audit into employees’ searching for information on individuals or groups is necessary,” Walker concluded.

The 200-page report also revealed that Johnson was the only employee whose social media posts were monitored for politically sensitive content. Two other DOJ employees engaged in the searches as well to filter out threats against the police last September.

“The Intelligence Unit as a whole would benefit from clear and consistent leadership and direction regarding applying the relevant statutes and regulations to their daily activities, specifically with respect to electronic monitoring of social media,” the report said. “This training should be mandatory, documented and monitored.”

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