Threats, intimidation, anonymous attacks are feared by some
By Marcy Stamper
The publication on an online blog of a “snitch list” including names and contact information of people who reported possible COVID health violations by Okanogan County businesses to the state has raised questions about privacy and anonymity, public health and safety, civic responsibility and what it means to be a good neighbor.
Publication of the list has unleashed fear and suspicion, and some whose personal information was released have threatened lawsuits. But the list has also drawn support from people who believe public health measures have trampled individual rights and caused businesses to founder.
“The Okanogan County Snitch List — Inslee’s Informant Herd” was first posted on Jan. 29 by Methow Valley resident Court Creighton on his blog TheMethow.com. Creighton listed the names and contact information of some 70 people who reported potential violations of COVID health regulations by businesses throughout the county to Washington state.
Creighton said he included only those complaints from “potentially identifiable people,” about 85 of 473 complaints filed against Okanogan County businesses from last March through this January. Some people reported more than one business.
The reports of possible violations cover small local restaurants and shops, big-box stores and churches, the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office, Mid-Valley Hospital, and entire school districts. The list doesn’t provide any details about the nature of the concerns. As of Feb. 22, the blog had more than 7,300 views.
The author of the blog identifies himself as Court C. on TheMethow.com, which is described as “Community Journalism for the Methow Valley.” But on a separate notification channel for TheMethow.com, he uses the name Court Creighton. Creighton ran unsuccessfully for Okanogan County Sheriff in 2018 and is a volunteer firefighter.
Creighton did not respond to a Facebook message inquiring about the list and hung up on a reporter from the Methow Valley News after she identified herself.
The article that precedes the list includes intimidating language, with references to the “citizen informer” and totalitarian regimes. Creighton says that snitches “do their dirty work in secret” but pretend to be shocked “as a neighbor is dragged out and beaten — metaphorically or not.”
“For that to work, the informers need their anonymity. By denying it to them, perhaps we can stop going further down this unpleasant path that we’re all on. This article contains info on those who were foolishly proud enough of their informant work in their own community, to attach their name or other identifying information to their accusations,” Creighton wrote.
Washington state makes clear on the online form where people can report possible health violations that all the information they submit is public and will be released if there is a records request.
People can submit a complaint to the state without providing their contact information. Before submitting the complaint, the person has the option of checking a box that says, “Yes, I want to reveal my contact information.”
Shield of anonymity
Despite the advocacy for bringing things out of the shadows, much of the snitch-list saga is playing out behind a shield of anonymity.
An individual who described him/herself as a “concerned citizen” emailed everyone on the list alerting them to what he called Creighton’s intention “to publicly ‘out’ those who reported businesses for violating COVID-19 rules. Creighton’s intent was a not so veiled effort at inviting threats and harassment to land in your email inbox and in your voicemail,” the concerned citizen wrote. A copy of the email was shared with the Methow Valley News.
The person said in the email that he/she “decided to return him [Creighton] the favor” and threatened to release Creighton’s information to everyone on his list. When Creighton didn’t delete the information from his blog, the person emailed everyone on the list so they could “benefit from knowing his identity.”
The same person also emailed the editor of the Methow Valley News, suggesting the newspaper might be interested in the snitch-list story. “While the author of TheMethow.com ironically wishes to remain anonymous himself, his name is Courtney Creighton,” the concerned citizen wrote to the editor, providing contact information for Creighton, the name of his wife, and information about their children.
In response to a follow-up email from a reporter to set up an interview, the person declined to provide his/her name or phone number, but wrote, “Fortunately I’m not on the list. I’m just an individual with a background in private investigations who is sympathetic to the plight of those subjected to doxxing and harassment.”
“I can’t take down [Creighton’s] website, but I can ensure that he can’t continue to do this anonymously…. Individuals like Courtney Creighton should not get a free pass on this type of horrible behavior,” the person wrote.
Nadine Van Hees, president of the Methow Valley Theater, also received an anonymous email from the same person. It landed in her in-box with the subject line, “Two members of Methow Valley Theater engaged in very poor conduct.”
Van Hees didn’t file a complaint with the state and was not on the “snitch list.” But she was producing “The Wizard of Oz” last year, and several members of the Creighton family — including children — were in the cast. The production was canceled because of COVID.
Van Hees emailed the citizen directly. “Just so you know, this was very disturbing to me. The entire thing. An anonymous email, linking to a deplorable act of evil by someone in our own community. Not a very nice thing to do to a neighbor. A phone call would have been much kinder, and probably more productive,” she said.
“It really freaked me out and screwed up my day,” Van Hees said in an interview last week. “It was very creepy — somebody sends me an anonymous email, knows who I am, and got my email address.”
“Damage upon damage is terrible. In such a small community, we should talk to each other — it works. We don’t have room to divide our valley,” Van Hees said.
Creighton has posted other articles on his blog that make clear that he’s concerned about the economic fallout from the COVID pandemic and that he questions the value of many public health measures, including masks. He published a “dead business log” (calling it “Inslee’s list”).
The act of reporting these businesses to the government is “breaking our society,” Creighton wrote. Other articles on his blog discuss topics such as the recent cyber attack on the county and the weather.
Ten people who were on the “snitch list” told the Methow Valley News that they’d been very troubled by the exposure, and several said they’d been targets of retaliation, both online and in interactions in the valley.
One person said she was distressed that the list had been shared on local Facebook pages about items for sale, where it attracted menacing comments. One person threatened to publish information about where the people live as well as pictures of their families. Another compared the complainants to Hitler’s Brownshirts. And one wrote, “Snitches end up in ditches!”
Others defended those who made reports to the state, saying they were helping ensure observance of public health measures. One said businesses should be doing their part to keep people safe. Several reported the snitch list to Facebook as harassment and incitement of violence.
One person — who said he didn’t know how his information ended up on the list, since he hadn’t filed a complaint — said he had contacted an attorney. “Mr. Creighton has risked the safety of the people of this community by providing this list,” the person said.
Seeing her contact information circulate online made one woman fear for the safety of her children. “I take this thing seriously. I take the pandemic seriously,” she said. She reported her concerns about businesses because she wanted to keep the community healthy and see schools reopen, she said.
Law enforcement contacts
Several of the people whose names were published reported the situation to state agencies and law enforcement. One person even called the FBI.
An individual whose name, phone and email were published on the Methow.com list filed a complaint with the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office on Feb. 1. The individual described the article as “harassing and potentially threatening,” according to Sheriff’s Deputy Anthony Coble, who took the report.
Coble concluded that the snitch-list content didn’t meet the threshold for violating state law on threats and harassment. He pointed to specific language in Creighton’s article that read, “Please do not threaten these people. It could be a criminal offense.”
The names and contact information are a matter of public record and available to anyone, Coble wrote.
The person who filed the complaint with the Sheriff’s Office said he was initially frightened but later considered the article less of an issue. Still, he wanted it to be on record in case something occurred, Coble wrote.
“I think this is a symptom of a larger problem that has been ignored nationally and on the local level,” said one person on the list. “People feel emboldened to do whatever they want, even if it hurts people. We don’t exist in a vacuum. Part of the social contract is to do what’s good for everyone.”
“I’ve seen this community care about each other in fires. I don’t see how this is any different. There’s a virus — a threat that’s killing people, just like a fire or flood,” said another.
Protected speech vs. threats
The distinction between protected speech and speech that constitutes a threat or harassment depends on the specific circumstances of the speech, said Nancy Talner, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington.
The ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a 2019 case in the U.S. District Court in Tacoma, arguing that the state’s cyberstalking statute didn’t adequately define speech that could “embarrass,” making that section unconstitutional, Talner said. The judge agreed.
Distinguishing between a true threat and protected speech is very fact-specific, and words and context both matter, Talner said. The ACLU has backed restrictions on speech where a “reasonable person” would perceive the speech as threatening physical injury and believe the speaker intended to carry out the threat.
There is considerable legal debate as to what constitutes a threat, and the issue is far from settled. “There’s not as much clarity as we would like,” Talner said.
“If the publisher obtained the records legally from the government, they have very, very strong First Amendment rights to republish them. If the government erred in releasing it, that is on
the government, not the publisher,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation Civil Liberties Director David Greene.