Suit alleges MAUIWatch has drawn harassment by county
Neldon Mamuad, a part-time executive assistant to Council Member Don Guzman, has filed a federal lawsuit against Maui County, alleging that his First Amendment right to free speech has been violated because he’s been pressured to stop work on his MAUIWatch Facebook page.
The page began last summer as TAGUMAWatch, a page dedicated initially to commentary and observations of the law enforcement activities of Maui police officer Keith Taguma. The longtime officer is “prolific in writing traffic citations and for his rigorous and meticulous enforcement of Maui traffic laws,” the lawsuit says.
The name of the page was changed in August to MAUIWatch, only after Mamuad “was pressured to do so, in addition to being pressured to shut down the page altogether” by county Corporation Counsel Patrick Wong, the complaint says.
“Defendant county now seeks to punish plaintiff Mamuad for his social commentary on the MAUIWatch site (both under its current name . . . and its former name, TAGUMAWatch), and chill his future speech, apparently based on lawful comments made regarding a Maui Police Department officer,” the lawsuit says. “It is still unclear to plaintiff Mamuad what, exactly, he has said or done to warrant this punishment, insofar as none of his speech violates any law or county policy.”
Contacted by phone Friday, Wong referred comment to county spokesman Rod Antone.
On Friday, Antone said that the county would be making a formal request to the County Council’s Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee on Monday to hire special counsel to represent the county in this case. The committee meets at 9 a.m.
“The County of Maui will not be issuing a comment,” said Antone. “We are in the process of obtaining special counsel to represent the county in federal court and that has not been completed at this time.”
The lawsuit seeks a federal court order prohibiting Maui County from interfering with Mamuad’s right to speak freely. The complaint asks for a court order declaring the county’s actions unconstitutional and ordering the deletion of any disciplinary action on Mamuad’s employment records.
Mamuad also seeks unspecified damages for violations of his free speech as well as payment of his attorneys’ fees and costs.
Mamuad is one of several administrators for the MAUIWatch Facebook page, described in the lawsuit as a “crowd-sourcing site for traffic information and other news for the island of Maui.” As measured by “Likes,” the page has a following of more than 25,000. Mamuad edits, posts and deletes content from the Facebook page, according to the complaint filed March 3 in U.S. District Court in Honolulu.
According to the complaint, Taguma complained about postings of sightings of him on the Facebook page and filed a complaint that he was being harassed via the TAGUMAWatch site.
Taguma also allegedly filed a complaint with the Maui County Council, the complaint says.
Aside from working for Guzman, Mamuad, a Makawao resident, serves as a volunteer member of the county Liquor Control Commission. His term expires March 31, 2017.
The lawsuit maintains that Mamuad’s work for the county and his participation in MAUIWatch don’t overlap.
“He has never put his name anywhere on the Facebook site. Nothing on the Facebook page has ever indicated or implied that the administrator(s) of the site has/have any sort of employment relationship with the county,” the complaint says. “Instead, Mamuad’s speech is consistently that of an observer to officer Taguma’s actions, . . . a perspective that is available to every other individual on Maui that does not arise from his position as an employee or commissioner.”
Regarding Taguma, the lawsuit says: “Some Maui residents believe officer Taguma’s work is praiseworthy, while others believe his work represents a misallocation of scarce governmental resources.”
The lawsuit says that TAGUMAWatch grew out of Mamuad’s former work as program director from 2002 to 2007 at Pacific Radio Group and his morning program, “The Big Phat Morning Show.”
During the show, Mamuad and his co-host would report sightings of Taguma on his Cushman vehicle, most of the time in Wailuku town, conducting traffic enforcement. The segment later evolved into a traffic-watch report for listeners to call with observations of traffic conditions and police activity on Maui, the lawsuit says.
“Callers to the program expressed differing views on officer Taguma,” it says. “Some thought he was a great police officer; others thought that he went too far and was too harsh in how he treated motorists on Maui.”
Mamuad stopped hosting the radio program in 2007, but last June he was talking with friends about TAGUMAWatch and “realized that there was still community interest in discussing issues such as the use of police resources and the boundaries of police power,” the complaint says.
The TAGUMAWatch Facebook page was started around July 7.
The Facebook page built a following, and Hawaii News Now reporter Lisa Kubota did a TV news story about it called “Maui police officer turns into social media star.”
The lawsuit says Mamuad never intended to act maliciously toward Taguma, but his intent was “to poke fun at the officer for the ways in which he performed his official duties.”
According to the complaint, Wong met with Mamuad on July 24 and “made it clear to plaintiff Mamuad that he (Mr. Wong), on behalf of the county, was very upset with the page and wanted it to stop – specifically that writing about officer Taguma cease. Mr. Wong told plaintiff Mamuad that, if plaintiff Mamuad knew who was involved with the TAGUMAWatch Facebook page, Mr. Wong wanted it taken down.”
It later became publicly revealed that Mamuad was involved with the TAGUMAWatch page.
Wong met with Mamuad a second time and said that “he had instructed plaintiff Mamuad to shut the page down entirely within two weeks of the first meeting,” the complaint says. “Plaintiff Mamuad was very upset that Corporation Counsel Wong continued to pressure him to stop speaking via the Facebook page. The meetings made plaintiff Mamuad feel like the county was coming after him, and that they were trying to silence him.”
During the second meeting, Mamuad agreed to change the name of the page, “but he thought doing so would help to ease tensions and make the county leave him alone.”
In August, Taguma submitted a complaint to Managing Director Keith Regan, complaining that he was being harassed via the TAGUMAWatch site, the complaint says. Then on Sept. 12, Deputy Corporation Counsel Gary Murai informed Mamuad that a harassment complaint had been filed against him and that he was expected to attend an interview with Murai and the deputy director of the Department of Personnel Services, David Underwood.
Mamuad has not been permitted to see the complaint, the lawsuit says.
In a Sept. 27 letter to Mamuad’s legal counsel, Murai said that Mamuad had violated the county’s “Violence in the Workplace Action Plan” policy, the complaint says.
The harassment complaint alleges that Mamuad used Taguma’s name and photo without his permission and has encouraged others to submit photographs of and comments about him, the lawsuit says. “It also alleges that plaintiff Mamuad failed to comply with Corporation Counsel Wong’s directive to shut the site down.”
On Oct. 16, Mamuad attended an interview as required with Murai and Underwood and was accompanied by his attorneys, Marcus Landsberg and Daniel Gluck, the complaint says. At the beginning of the interview, Murai told Mamuad: “As a council employee and county officer, you are obligated to cooperate with investigations and you are prohibited from making false statements. Failure to do so may result in disciplinary action.”
The complaint says Murai pressured Mamuad to reveal his involvement with the Facebook page, and he only answered because of the threat of disciplinary action against him.
“Plaintiff Mamuad was upset that the county had forced him to reveal his role in what he had wanted to be anonymous speech,” the lawsuit says.
Later, Mamuad continued work on the MAUIWatch page, but he refrained from posting items about Taguma that he ordinarily would have done, it says.
On Jan. 24, Mamuad received a letter from Regan stating that he had violated the “Violence in the Workplace Action Plan” as a liquor commissioner, but Mamuad has not received any correspondence from the County Council indicating that he violated any county policy in his capacity as an executive assistant to Guzman, the complaint says.
Although the letter from Regan doesn’t specifically say what Mamuad did to violate the policy, it said a violation did occur and it stemmed from an allegation that he subjected a fellow employee “to harassment and cyber-bullying through the use of an online social media website.”
Regan’s letter required Mamuad to enroll in an employee assistance program “to address harassment and cyber-bullying” within 90 days of receiving the letter, the complaint says. It also instructed Mamuad that “no further violations of the County of Maui Violence in the Workplace Action Plan occur.”
Since the county’s interpretation of its “action plan” policy appears to prohibit speech that “bothers” a county employee, then it therefore “restricts plaintiff Mamuad’s speech as to an extraordinary wide range of topics and individuals,” the lawsuit says. “For example, the action plan seemingly prohibits plaintiff Mamuad from speaking negatively about any county official: the mayor, any member of the County Council, any police officer, or any member of any of the 16 county departments.”
The lawsuit says that, “regardless of what the action plan says or whether/how it applies, however, a county policy cannot trump the First Amendment.”
As a result, Mamuad is afraid to speak about Taguma and about “the broader issues of misallocation of police resources on Maui,” the complaint says. “Mamuad is also anxious, worried and distressed that these ‘findings’ (that he violated the action plan) are now part of his employment/service record for the county, and that this matter will impede his ability to obtain/maintain employment with the county and/or with other employers into the future.”
There is no apparent process for Mamuad to appeal the findings made against him, the complaint says.
In an announcement of the lawsuit from his attorneys, Mamuad is quoted as saying: “I am a part-time county employee and volunteer liquor commissioner. Government officers and employees have First Amendment rights, and I just want the county to respect mine.”
He is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, Maui attorney Philip Lowenthal and Honolulu attorney Marcus Landsberg IV.
In the announcement, Lowenthal said: “Mr. Mamuad’s Facebook page is protected speech. The county just doesn’t like the attention, and it is using its governmental position and power as his employer to silence him. It’s flat-out wrong. The people of Maui and the state of Hawaii deserve better.”
Maui Police Department spokesman Lt. William Juan said that the department could not comment on the matter because it’s under litigation. He said he would send Taguma an email to let him know The Maui News was seeking comment from him. Taguma did not contact the newspaper to comment.
According to Office of Council Services Director David Raatz, Mamuad earns $20 an hour as a part-time executive assistant to Guzman, who holds the council’s Kahului residency seat.
Guzman said that Mamuad works fewer than 10 hours a week and undertakes assignments, such as attending community events for the council member, researching issues and preparing photocopies for the council member’s meeting binder.
He said he doesn’t know about Mamuad’s involvement with MAUIWatch.
“That’s his own personal life,” Guzman said. “I never got involved in his personal life.”
He said the lawsuit does not stem from his employment in Guzman’s office, but rather from the county’s disciplinary action tied to his voluntary service as a liquor commissioner.
As an attorney and not a council member, Guzman said: “I believe there’s good grounds to argue there’s been a First Amendment violation.”
He said that the “Violence in the Workplace” policy needs to be re-examined to see whether it should apply to Mamuad as a volunteer liquor commissioner and whether that affects his constitutional right to comment publicly on county officials.
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.