One particular cease-and-desist letter has raised questions surrounding the rights of civilians to petition their state government representatives.
A human resources professional and political activist named Stacey Lane received the letter back in October from the office of Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas). The notice ordered Lane to stop contacting the senator’s offices.
“Health care was a really big issue before I got the letter. I did what I could to call senators and congressmen and raise the concerns I had,” Lane said, according to Salon.
As a United States citizen with a right to free speech, Lane should be allowed to contact the offices of a government official representing her. She said she’d call the office once or twice per week mostly during times before a major vote or legislative action; however, she would also go several weeks without contacting the office at all.
“My calls were purposeful, typically surrounding a major vote or legislative action or call to action via the various activist groups. I was not a serial, daily caller-just-to-call type [of] person,” Lane said.
Perhaps if she had been harassing Cotton or his staffers, the cease-and-desist letter would be justified, but if her account is accurate, then Cotton’s office has no grounds for silencing a civically engaged constituent.
Alas, Cotton’s office claims that, on more than one occasion, Lane used vulgar language in her calls. The last straw that resulted in the cease-and-desist letter was an incident in which Lane allegedly called a 19-year-old intern a “c**t.” The U.S. Capitol Police purportedly advised Cotton’s office to issue the letter after they reported Lane’s offensive calls.
While Lane is a member of Ozark Indivisible — an anti-Trump activist group — Cotton’s Senior Counselor for Military and Defense Affairs, John Noonan, asserted on Twitter that the letter was directed specifically to Lane and not any group of people or organization.
1. This went out to a single constituent, not a group.— John Noonan (@noonanjo) January 18, 2018
2. That constituent called a 19 year old intern a c***.
3. Constituent had multiple warnings.
4. We have a very different understanding of "harassment." https://t.co/gJdFYviELw
Lane claims that she doesn’t recall calling the intern the derogatory name and maintains that she’s only ever used that word maybe “two times in my life.”
“Have I used colorful language? Yes, but it’s nothing more than I see our president using,” Lane told Salon.
Nevertheless, Cotton’s office maintains that their decision was sparked by Lane’s own actions:
“If an employee of Senator Cotton receives repeated communications that are harassing and vulgar, or any communication that contains a threat, our policy is to notify the U.S. Capitol Police’s Threat Assessment Section and, in accordance with their guidance, send a cease-and-desist letter to the individual making the harassing or threatening communication.”
Even if Lane said the disparaging things she’s been accused of, David Snyder — executive director of the First Amendment Coalition — said he still sees the cease-and-desist letter as problematic.
“This letter is inappropriate, and I would say it’s borderline unconstitutional,” Snyder told Salon. “This kind of speech, as offensive as it may be and as vulgar as it is, is just part of the game; it’s part of what happens in a democracy.”
Snyder also noted that Lane’s vulgar language doesn’t constitute a threat where a person would fear for their safety.
“If this staffer had a legitimate concern for personal safety, then this might be someone the office should report to the Capitol Police and let them deal with it from there,” Snyder said.
Wayne B. Giampietro, general counsel to the First Amendment Lawyers Association, also criticized the senator’s move, suggesting that sending the letter could be considered a form of intimidation.
“Anyone who wants to try to intimidate someone can send a cease and desist letter. Whether that letter is worth the paper it’s written on is another story,” he told Salon. “Unless the profanities are a direct and imminent threat to the lawmaker, they are almost certainly protected by the First Amendment.”
Lane shares the views of Giampietro and Snyder, proclaiming that the letter was “a tactic to suppress my voice.”
Perhaps this was all a strategic ploy by Cotton's office to make an example of Lane in an effort to discourage other protesters from voicing their concerns or from using profane language when doing so. Either way, watchdogs need to keep an eye on instances of this nature to make sure civilians' rights aren't routinely being infringed upon.