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Whitman instructor threatens lawsuit against McMorris Rodgers over response to Facebook posts

Sept. 8, 2017 Updated Fri., Sept. 8, 2017 at 10:06 a.m.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers speaks at a town hall in Spokane on Aug. 10, 2017. A Walla Walla man is threatening legal action after Capitol Police contacted his employer earlier this year indicating he may have had “an unknown mental illness” based on social media postings and interactions with the congresswoman’s staff. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers speaks at a town hall in Spokane on Aug. 10, 2017. A Walla Walla man is threatening legal action after Capitol Police contacted his employer earlier this year indicating he may have had “an unknown mental illness” based on social media postings and interactions with the congresswoman’s staff. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

An instructor at Whitman College is threatening legal action against Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers after her staff reported his social media behavior to federal authorities, who later raised questions about his mental health.

Devon Wootten, who manages the college’s Language Learning Center and is in the midst of a run for Walla Walla City Council, sent a letter through an attorney last month to both McMorris Rodgers and the U.S. Capitol Police demanding an apology by Friday for “an overt violation of his civil rights.” In response, an attorney for the House of Representatives said no violations occurred, because federal laws allow lawmakers to impose “reasonable limitations” on online speech.

Wootten said his social media postings, which included binary coded messages posted to Facebook in January, were a tongue-in-cheek way to criticize the congresswoman’s access to her constituents. It was inspired by the antics of Kembrew McLeod, a University of Iowa professor who made national news for heckling former President Bill Clinton at a campaign event in 2008 dressed as a robot, Wootten said.

“Her responses were so robotic and nonresponsive, they were not actual substantive responses,” he said. “It was a gesture toward the ridiculousness of the situation.”

Jared Powell, a spokesman for McMorris Rodgers, said Wootten’s letter was submitted to the Office of General Counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives, the agency providing legal representation to lawmakers and their staffs for claims arising from official Congressional business. Todd Tatelman, an attorney with the office, wrote in a letter dated Thursday to Wootten and his attorney that no violation occurred and the allegations contained in the letter included “numerous factual errors and omissions.”

“Under the circumstances, your letter does not identify any violation of Mr. Wootten’s First Amendment rights,” Tatelman said.

The postings, which included strings of 0s and 1s that translate to messages calling McMorris Rodgers a liar, along with other messages critical of her policy positions and support of President Donald Trump, led to Wootten being banned from posting earlier this year, he said. Wootten also sent messages to the personal accounts of several staffers and frequently tagged them in his own posts to social media.

After a discussion with McMorris Rodgers’ staff, Wootten was allowed to post again in late January. But a visit with staff members in the congresswoman’s Walla Walla office in February resulted in Wootten’s employers being contacted by the Capitol Police, the federal law enforcement agency tasked with protecting members of Congress.

That contact is what prompted Wootten’s legal threat. An email message the school received in February from a man identifying himself as a special agent with the Capitol Police indicated concern Wootten “may be suffering from an unknown mental illness.” Local police showed up at a church he began attending around the same time, Wootten said.

A phone message left with the agent identified in the email provided by Wootten and verified by former school administrator Chuck Cleveland was returned by an email from Eva Malecki, communications director for the Capitol Police, who declined to comment on the case.

“The mission of the United States Capitol Police is to protect and serve Congress. Our responsibilities include consulting with member offices on security-related matters. However, we do not comment on these consultations or discuss how we carry out our protective responsibilities for Congress,” wrote Malecki. She did not respond to follow-up questions this week about the threatened lawsuit.

The letter threatening legal action, penned by Walla Walla attorney Janelle Carman, alleges damages to Wootten’s reputation as a result of the actions of the police and McMorris Rodgers’ office.

“You look at these Facebook posts, and there’s nothing even close to threatening,” Carman said.

Tatelman said McMorris Rodgers’ office was not responsible for the actions of the Capitol Police.

“The U.S. Capitol Police is a law enforcement agency that reports to the Capitol Police Board; it does not take ‘directives’ from individual Members,” Tatelman wrote, citing the assertion made in Wootten’s letter that the agency was acting under the direction of McMorris Rodgers’ staff.

Wootten said he hadn’t been disciplined as a result of the contact in February and remains employed with the school.

“If the trustees want me gone as a result of the speech, I won’t know that until it happens,” Wootten said.

At a recent Spokane town hall, an audience member told McMorris Rodgers he’d been blocked from her Facebook page “for questioning why you supported Donald Trump.”

“If anyone has visited my Facebook page, you know that it’s open warfare on my Facebook page,” McMorris Rodgers responded. “We did set up rules of engagement.”

“It’s an effort that we can have a constructive dialogue,” she continued, saying that discussion was “open-ended.”

McMorris Rodgers’ staff said Friday the man was blocked from posting to Facebook because of language used in his posts. Those posts mirrored language used by Trump in a video that gained notoriety during the campaign.

Wootten said he’s more concerned about the potentially chilling effect of having police go directly to employers than he is about his social media ban. He said he understood law enforcement need to be on alert in certain instances, but his wasn’t one of them.

“I understand that the capitol police have a job to do. There are people who want to hurt elected officials,” he said. “If they had called me directly, that’s one thing. What is completely inappropriate, is when an officer calls my work and says, ‘We think your employee is suffering from an unknown mental illness.’ ”

He has sent his letter to other lawmakers and McMorris Rodgers’ opponents in the upcoming election and admits he’d like to see the congresswoman voted out of office. He said politics aren’t motivating his legal complaint.

“We ask for so little. This is not about money, this is about an elected official harassing a constituent,” he said.

This story was edited Friday, Sept. 8, to clarify the social media interaction Wootten had with congressional staffers and the reason for which another man was blocked from posting to McMorris Rodgers’ Facebook account.

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