The Douglas County Sheriff's Office isn't involved in monitoring anti-Jordan Cove Energy Project activists' social media accounts, according to Brad O'Dell, spokesman for the Sheriff's Office.
The project, which is owned by Canadian energy company Pembina, includes the construction of a 229-mile natural gas pipeline through Southern Oregon to a proposed export terminal in Coos Bay, where liquified natural gas would be shipped markets primarily in Asia. The pipeline would cross 64 miles of public, private and tribal land in Douglas County.
Landowners and environmental groups have used social media to organize against the project since it was first proposed more than a decade ago. On Aug. 8, London-based newspaper The Guardian published a story describing an effort by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to monitor public social media posts by groups, individuals and Native American tribes who oppose the pipeline.
Civil liberties groups and landowner advocates say the monitoring might violate surveillance laws. Attorneys say they're seeking more information from government agencies to determine whether to take legal action.
According to Oregon law, no law enforcement agency may collect or maintain information about people or groups unless such information directly relates to an investigation of criminal activities, and there are reasonable grounds to suspect the subject of the information may be involved in criminal conduct.
Activists say they're unnerved by the monitoring.
"Landowners are incensed, especially if we find out that we're on some kind of list," said Stacey McLaughlin, a Douglas County landowner who has been an outspoken critic of the project for years. "I don't think we're going to let it stand. There's been enough oppression of the people who are opposing this project."
U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio likened the monitoring to J. Edgar Hoover-era spying in a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr.
League of Women Voters of Oregon President Rebecca Gladstone sent a letter to Gov. Kate Brown and Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum urging them to stop state law enforcement's involvement.
"We write to you today to express our deep concerns about what appear to be actions by various entities, including some under your direction, that we believe exert a chilling effect on the First Amendment rights to freedom with respect to religion, expression, peaceful assembly, or the right of citizens to petition the government," read the letter.
Agencies circulated activists' posts on an email list, which included the Coos County Sheriff's Office, the Oregon State Police, the FBI, the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Forest Service and a private citizen working for a political consulting group, according to the story.
O'Dell said the Douglas County Sheriff's Office isn't part of the South Western Oregon Joint Task Force — a group of agencies circulating the social media posts.
"We are not active participants of this group," O'Dell said in an email, adding that the Sheriff's Office isn't actively monitoring anti-Jordan Cove activists. "The Sheriff's Office does not routinely monitor activist groups or individuals. The safety and security of the people in our community is always our number one mission, therefore we utilize whatever resources are available to ensure that mission."
A records request showed the Sheriff's Office monitored social media accounts of individuals and activist groups during an investigation into threats made to Lone Rock Timber Management Company officials in 2018. Nine individuals, groups and events were monitored during the incident, according to a list of Facebook pages provided by the Sheriff's Office.
Megan Gibson, an attorney with the Niskanen Center, a District of Columbia-based law firm that is representing more than 20 landowners in Douglas, Klamath and Jackson counties pro bono, said the center has submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to federal agencies for documents regarding the monitoring.
Oregon ACLU policy director Kimberly McCullough said the group is also seeking to confirm information in the Aug. 8 story first hand, but that the reporting suggests the task force went beyond collecting basic information about upcoming Jordan Cove protests such as the number of people attending.
"When there is an actual, you know, there is real evidence that some sort of criminal activity is going on, cooperation between different law enforcement agencies makes sense," McCullough said. "But when there's no criminal nexus, and it's just surveillance, right, so they're sort of fishing for criminal activity, and there's collaboration with federal agencies, we get very worried because the federal agencies follow very different rules than law enforcement in Oregon."
McCullough said even in situations where there is a reason to believe criminal activity might occur, law enforcement agencies that monitor social media accounts risk collecting information that is not relevant to the investigation.
"Mission creep is kind of a good word for that," she said. "That's where I think training is so important so that law enforcement understands when they're stepping outside of what they should be investigating."