Renewed Scrutiny for Cotton’s Cease-And-Desist Letters to Constituents

Arkansas man says he was threatened with letter in June for using an expletive

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton has been criticized for his office’s practice of sending cease and desist letters to some constituents who call in. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton has been criticized for his office’s practice of sending cease and desist letters to some constituents who call in. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 31, 2018 at 9:47am

Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton’s office is under the First Amendment microscope again for its practice of sending cease-and-desist letters to constituents who call in and use coarse language.

Arkansan Don Ernst said he was threatened with a cease-and-desist letter after he called Cotton’s office 17 times last year from January to June asking about the senator’s response to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, and how Cotton would deal with the opioid crisis if the 2010 health care law was repealed, Ernst revealed on a The Sexy Pundits podcast Sunday.

Ernst’s son is an opioid addict.

He waited two weeks for a response that never came after his initial call in January before dialing the office again, he said.

“On the eighteenth time — and I have regrets about this to some degree — I said, ‘You know it’s bulls–t that I can’t get a response to these, I think, quite clear questions,’” Ernst said.

The young woman in Cotton’s office hung up the phone when Ernst used the expletive, he said.

When he called back asking to speak with someone “of more authority,” an employee told him the office had submitted his name to the United States Capitol Police and he would be sent a cease-and-desist letter. Ernst said he apologized for using coarse language.

The letter was sent on June 9, he was told.

“I’ll be honest with you, I kind of freaked out,” he said. “What does it mean to have your name submitted to the United States Capitol Police?”

Ernst never received the cease-and-desist letter from Cotton, he said.

Cotton’s office has “a policy of not commenting on specific constituent correspondence” in order to “protect the privacy of those who contact our office,” spokeswoman Caroline Rabbit Tabler said in a statement Wednesday.

“In order to maintain a safe work environment, if an employee of Senator Cotton receives repeated communications that are harassing and vulgar, or any communication that contains a threat, our policy is to notify the U.S. Capitol Police’s Threat Assessment Section and, in accordance with their guidance, send a cease and desist letter to the individual making the harassing or threatening communication,” Rabbit Tabler said.

The statement also seemed to indicate that Ernst had mischaracterized his communications with the office to appear more innocent of wrongdoing himself.

“Repeated use of abusive language including aggressive questioning of staff’s character, morals, integrity, and intelligence are just some examples of what we would consider to be ‘harassing’ communication,” Rabbit Tabler said, responding to a query for comment on Ernst’s remarks, but without mentioning him by name.

Ernst had also called senior Arkansas Sen. John Boozman’s office about the same concerns over health care repeal and IDEA that he said he expressed to Cotton’s office.

Boozman’s staff was “very quick to say the senator supports IDEA,” Ernst said.

Watch: Trump Talks About Wall, Brother During Opioid Crisis Speech

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Most congressional offices receive occasional threats — usually vague, but still worthy of reporting to the Capitol Police — but it is uncommon to send cease-and-desist letters, especially for vulgar language that doesn’t cross the threshold of what could be considered a threat.

Cotton’s latest cease-and-desist episode has some political discourse groups worried he is using the letters to dodge questions from constituents and threaten them.

“Senator Cotton’s apparent practice of sending ‘cease and desist’ letters to constituents with legitimate (or even illegitimate) grievances about his positions on matters of public policy is deeply disturbing and runs directly counter to the whole point of democratic politics and, indeed, the First Amendment,” David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, told Salon.

“If the First Amendment stands for anything, it stands for the idea that the people have a right to complain to their elected leaders about positions those leaders have taken on important issues of public policy,” he said.