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Oregon DOJ Employee Gathered Info On #BlackLivesMatter Tweeters


A "Black Lives Matter" protest in Portland, Ore., August 12, 2015.

A "Black Lives Matter" protest in Portland, Ore., August 12, 2015.

Conrad Wilson/OPB

The Urban League of Portland accused the Oregon Department of Justice Tuesday of conducting digital surveillance on people who used the hashtag “Black Lives Matter” on social media.
 
That surveillance included the DOJ’s own director of civil rights, Erious Johnson.
 
Johnson is married to Urban League of Portland President Nkenge Harmon Johnson. Harmon Johnson declined to comment for this story.
 
The Department of Justice’s Criminal Division “has been using software to conduct ‘threat assessments,’” according to a letter sent from the League to Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.
 
“The division searched the Twitter feeds of Oregonians who have used the hashtag ‘Black Lives Matter,’” the letter states.
 
The letter, signed by the ACLU of Oregon’s David Rogers and the AFL-CIO’s Tom Chamberlain, among others, said it’s “improper, and potentially unlawful” for the DOJ to conduct this type of surveillance for expressing a viewpoint.
 
“We are concerned that such unwarranted investigations are racially motivated, and create a chilling effect on social justice advocates, political activists and other who wish to engage in discourse about the issues of our time,” the letter states.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said she had no prior knowledge that an employee was monitoring the hashtag.

“I recently became aware that an employee of the Oregon DOJ Criminal Division was conducting a digital search of Twitter hashtags including #blacklivesmatter, that led him to the Twitter account of a close and trusted member of my inner circle staff, Erious Johnson Jr.,” Rosenblum said in an emailed statement.

She went on to say she was “outraged” by the discovery, and ordered it to immediately stop.

“I am working to engage a Special Assistant Attorney General to conduct a complete HR investigation and audit to get to the bottom of this deeply troubling situation,” Rosenblum said.

Rosenblum said she’s  placed one Criminal Justice Division employee on paid leave.

She later wrote in response letter to the Urban League that an investigator in the Criminal Justice Division was using an online search tool on a “trial basis” to search Twitter hashtags, one of which was #BlackLivesMatter. She said the employee chose to search the hashtags in a geographic area and found the Twitter account belonging to Johnson.

The Urban League has asked for an an independent audit of the Justice Department, among other requests. 

Rogers, the executive director for the ACLU of Oregon, said his group is preparing public records requests now to learn more about the situation.

“Surveilling people based on their political ideas undercuts the fundamental freedoms that our country was founded on,” he said.

Rogers said the ACLU helped pass a law in 1981 to prevent this type of monitoring from happening.
 
“What it comes down to is government spying of lawful advocacy groups – whatever their focus – is often designed to provide a chilling effect and to discredit their activism and their speech,” he said. “We hope that this terrible news doesn’t stop Black Lives Matter activists from voicing their perspectives and their agenda.”

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