ANALYSIS: The Real Story Behind Mamuad’s Free Speech Lawsuit

March 20, 2014, 4:03 PM HST · Updated June 26, 12:00 PM
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By David Kvasnicka

Neldon Mamuad. Photo by Wendy Osher.

Neldon Mamuad. (c) Maui Now photo.

In Neldon Mamuad’s version of events on March 14, carefully hidden behind an ACLU press release and lawsuit on his behalf, Maui County was attempting to shut down or muzzle the MauiWATCH Facebook page that he created, thereby stifling free speech.

This narrative appears to have mobilized strong support for Mamuad from MauiWATCH’s fanbase, with many there deeply critical of the county administration’s “attack” on free speech and some claiming to have sent formal complaints to the mayor.

Mamuad, who is a volunteer liquor commissioner and a part-time aide to Councilman Don Guzman – and therefore a county employee – is the center of a First Amendment-based lawsuit against the County of Maui filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

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The lawsuit claims that the county seeks to “punish” Mamuad for his “social commentary” via the Facebook page.

What’s Mamuad’s evidence that this is actually happening? It’s the county initiating minor disciplinary proceedings against him. He (via the lawsuit) claims the county never told him what the problem was. That’s it.

The Other Story

But there’s another version of this story that doesn’t bear much resemblance to the first, and that version has one county employee harassing another county employee.

The county never had any interest in shutting down the MauiWATCH Facebook page, which Corporation Counsel Patrick Wong clarified at a County Council meeting on Monday, March 17, where the county had to request the funds to contest the case.

The Facebook page’s original name was “TagumaWATCH,” based on the Maui police officer, Keith Taguma, who is well-known for performing his work as a traffic policeman extremely diligently.

Taguma was understandably upset about the page, which invited the public to photograph the policeman and report his activities in a daily and sometimes minute-by-minute fashion.

Exacerbating this was the similarly-premised TagumaWATCH radio segment that Mamuad created around 2004-2005 (which added to a string of infractions at his radio job for which Mamuad was eventually terminated, according to his former bosses).

So if it sounds like the alleged harassment has been going on for a while, it’s because it has.

Taguma made a formal complaint to the county administration over the Facebook page, and since both he and Mamuad are county employees, standard employee harassment procedures had to be enacted. Meetings were called. The stated purpose of the TagumaWATCH page was to celebrate the “true legend” of Taguma, but Taguma didn’t see it that way and nor did county officials. The county administration requested that the page be removed or renamed – the page was thus renamed to “MauiWATCH” and its scope was changed to crowd-sourced news.

So all fixed, right? Yes — almost. Remember, this has been going on for years. In the eyes of the county, the fact that the harassment occurred still stands; that infraction doesn’t just disappear because of the name-change. This is a crucial distinction in this whole case. The county has no choice but to complete the disciplinary action as would be required for any other employee. The standards for behavior in this case are specified in the so-called Violence in the Workplace Action Plan.

That discipline was to file the harassment on his employee record and have Mamuad enroll in the Employee Assistance Program to “address harassment and cyber-bullying,” according to Mamuad’s lawsuit.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit thereafter. When the ACLU was asked what evidence they had that the county had violated his First Amendment rights, Kit Grant, director of outreach, replied on behalf of Senior Staff Attorney Daniel Gluck:

“Our plaintiff has had a very serious, job-threatening harassment claim leveled against him, has been forced into unnecessary counseling, and has been told that further sanctions will be taken if he continues to violate workplace policies. Our client still has not been told by the county in what way he has violated those policies, and we are not aware of anything he has said or done that would have violated those policies.”

In other words, there’s no evidence. This has a dubious association with a First Amendment infringement and everything to do with a formal employee harassment case. For anyone who has previously supported the work that the ACLU has done, this situation may be deeply troubling.

The ACLU, perhaps with Mamuad’s persuasion, has decided to interpret “continues to violate workplace policies” (via administration letter to Mamuad) as a warning to cease MauiWATCH, despite that never being said. More likely, that’s boilerplate “don’t do it again” language that any workplace discipline might include, and is based on the already-resolved Taguma complaint (so long as Mamuad doesn’t harass in some new way).

Summary of Facts and Debunkings

— The county never wanted to remove or stifle the MauiWATCH Facebook page (as it was re-defined). That claim, as far as we can tell, was either a) a manipulation by Mamuad; or b) a misinterpretation, to give Mamuad the benefit of the doubt.

— If the scheme was a deliberate manipulation, Mamuad appears to have three main goals: 1) quash the harassment case against him; 2) Draw public attention to and via MauiWATCH and generate sympathy for himself; 3) Obtain a damages payout or a cash settlement from the County of Maui.

— The county never filed a lawsuit against Mamuad, as the fanbase on MauiWATCH is led to believe. The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU, who were likely sought out by Mamuad’s lawyers.

— It’s Maui tax dollars being forcibly spent to defend against Mamuad’s lawsuit. It is not the county wasting tax dollars to pursue MauiWATCH, as Mamuad has represented it. e.g. On March 15, MauiWATCH posted, “if you don’t want to see up to $150,000 of your tax dollars spent on legal fees; maybe you could show up to testify at the Council’s Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee …”

— If the county hadn’t followed procedure and disciplined Mamuad, then the county could be liable for a lawsuit on behalf of Taguma for not taking appropriate action as per policy.

— If Mamuad gets a cash settlement or damages payout from this, then Maui residents will be paying it and his lawyers (damages and legal fees are included in the language of the lawsuit).

— Maui County is a step away from committing $50,000 to contest the case, just a third of their initial estimated cost of $150,000.

— Whether Mamuad wins or loses this case, Maui County is set to lose a significant amount of money. If Mamuad had simply enrolled in the Employee Assistance Program, this situation would not have occurred. Mamuad was always free to continue his activities on MauiWATCH, having settled the harassment case arising from TagumaWATCH that now needs to be concluded via the disciplinary action.

Harassment or Freedom of Expression?

In the end, Mamuad’s determined right or wrongdoing may depend on whether you believe that creating a Facebook page about a person using their real name and instigating other people to document that person’s daily activities constitutes reasonable behavior and freedom of expression. County administration officials made a judgment call and determined that it was not. If Mamuad wasn’t a county employee, Taguma would need to have taken the more complicated route of suing Mamuad in court.

But now that Mamuad and his lawyers have framed the county harassment case against Mamuad as an assault on MauiWATCH and free speech, it all comes down to whether a judge sees it that way too. That might be a stretch, since the county administration never said so verbally or in writing. But stranger things have happened.

Ironically, the only free speech that has been stifled in this whole affair is that of county officials, who by standard practice cannot provide any information about a pending lawsuit for fear of jeopardizing it (and thus could not provide details for this story).

Mamuad declined to comment for this story.

 

Disclosure: Neldon Mamuad worked for the parent company of this publication, Pacific Media Group, then known as Pacific Radio Group, and left the company in 2007.

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