County will pay to settle MAUIWatch suit
Maui County will pay $25,000 in attorneys’ fees and damages to settle a federal lawsuit brought by a part-time employee who alleged his First Amendment right to free speech was violated when county officials interfered with his work on his MAUIWatch Facebook page.
The settlement reached Thursday also calls for revisions to the county anti-harassment policy and assurances that disciplinary documentation related to a police officer’s complaint of cyber-bullying by Neldon Mamuad would not be kept in Mamuad’s personnel file.
Mamuad, a part-time executive assistant to Council Member Don Guzman and a county Liquor Commission member, started the Facebook page on his personal time. At first, Mamuad called the page TAGUMAWatch and focused it on the activities of longtime Maui police officer Keith Taguma, who has been described as “prolific” in doing traffic enforcement in Central Maui.
Mamuad filed the lawsuit in March.
“I brought this case to protect my rights and to make sure all other public employees and volunteers can exercise their First Amendment rights as well,” Mamuad said in a statement released Friday. “Hopefully, the county has learned its lesson and realized that the government cannot use its power to quiet opinions it doesn’t like.”
Maui County Communications Director Rod Antone said that, despite Mamuad’s claims citing a variety of legal complaints, the lawsuit was limited to Mamuad’s harassment of Taguma, a Wailuku parking enforcement officer. Taguma filed a formal complaint against Mamuad, notifying the county that the officer felt harassed by Mamuad’s “TAGUMAWatch” Facebook page. Taguma never agreed to the use of his name or likeness by Mamuad, Antone said.
“The County of Maui is pleased that this case has concluded, and that a compromise has been reached,” Antone said in a news release Friday. “However, the county remains firm in its stance that Mr. Mamuad should not have been allowed to conduct a personal vendetta against officer Taguma, then proceed to lie about his intent by saying it was all in the name of the First Amendment. That sort of blatant disregard for the truth goes against everything the First Amendment stands for in the first place. Certainly, the ACLU took this into account, which is why they agreed to settle, and we appreciate that.”
In its news release, the county said part of the settlement called for “minor revisions” to the county harassment policy.
A news release by the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, which represented Mamuad, had a different characterization, saying the county “agreed to drastically rewrite its anti-harassment policy to make clear that the 2,500 employees of the county are still entitled to their First Amendment rights outside the workplace.”
The ACLU said that the changes will require county lawyers to review any complaints of harassment at an early stage, “to make sure that county employees do not have to submit to intrusive interviews about their off-work activities that are protected by the First Amendment.”
ACLU senior staff attorney Daniel Gluck said the settlement “reaffirms that government employees do not sign away their free speech rights just by working or volunteering for the government, period. Maui County’s employees and volunteers can now express themselves without fear of unconstitutional retaliation.”
Attorney Marcus Landsberg IV, also representing Mamuad, said the settlement “assures Maui County will rewrite its polices to recognize employees do not give up the right to free speech just by cashing a county paycheck. Thankfully, MAUIWatch can immediately resume its mission without fear of county retaliation and residents can again receive information unfiltered by illegal county oversight.”
Disputing Mamuad’s allegations that county officials pressured him to stop work on the Facebook page, Deputy Corporation Counsel Moana Lutey said: “At no time did the County of Maui ask Mamuad to take down the TAGUMAWatch – now named MAUIWatch — Facebook page. This was never an issue, although he would have his Facebook followers, the public and the media believe otherwise.”
The county news release said that while running the Facebook page as TAGUMAWatch, “Mamuad actively encouraged members of the public to take photos of officer Taguma, whether he was on duty or off, and post them to his page.”
“Comments mocking officer Taguma were then supplied, presumably by Mamuad,” according to the news release. “No allegations of improper conduct by officer Taguma were ever asserted by Mamuad. As a result of Mamuad’s actions, officer Taguma was confronted by people he did not know taking pictures of him and his family. Officer Taguma felt that people were following him on the streets, which caused him concern for his family’s safety. The TAGUMAWatch posts were created solely to target and harass Officer Taguma, a well-respected veteran police officer.”
The county said the TAGUMAWatch page continued the harassment initiated by Mamuad years earlier when he was working as a DJ at a local radio station. Mamuad targeted Taguma by alerting motorists to the officer’s location while on duty, according to the county.
In his complaint, Taguma said he felt Mamuad was continuing his personal vendetta, this time from his position as an employee for Guzman, the county said.
After Guzman asked Mamuad to change his Facebook page to remove Taguma’s name, Mamuad changed his Facebook page to MAUIWatch, according to the county. The Facebook page now has postings providing public safety and weather information.
“The county had a legal obligation to investigate Officer Taguma’s complaint and determined that officer Taguma had been harassed by Mamuad,” according to the county news release. “The harassment of Officer Taguma was considered to be cyber-bullying via Facebook; Mamuad was required to take a cyber-bullying awareness class as a result of his violation of the county’s anti-harassment policy.”
The county hired attorney Richard Rand as special counsel for the case.
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at email@example.com.