Freedom of speech is a bedrock principle of American democracy, so reports that Sen. Tom Cotton sent cease-and-desist letters to an unknown number of his Arkansas constituents attracted immediate scrutiny this week. A local Indivisible chapter claimed on Thursday that some Arkansans had received no-contact orders from the senator after they made phone calls and sent letters objecting to his policies on a number of issues. Cotton's office said such cease-and-desist letters may be sent out in "extreme circumstances," which, according to one Cotton staffer, apparently includes calling an intern the c-word.
According to the Arkansas Times, which obtained a copy of the letter, it reads: "This letter is immediate notification that all communication must cease and desist immediately with all offices of U.S. Senator Tom Cotton. All other contact will be deemed harassment and will be reported to the United States Capitol Police."
Arkansas Times contributor Billy Fleming also provided an account from someone who said they received the letter after contacting Cotton's office to express opposition on a range of issues, including health care, DACA, national security, the environment, cuts to the State Department, and "the rise of white nationalist fascism."
"I may have used unprofessional and unbecoming language at times," the unnamed letter recipient said.
Cotton's office did not immediately respond Friday to Bustle's requests for comment. When asked about the letter, Cotton's communications director Caroline Rabbitt Tabler told Talking Points Memo that the senator is always happy to hear from all constituents, but if contact with Cotton's employees consists of repeated "communications that are harassing and vulgar" or "contains a threat," then the office notifies the U.S. Capitol Police's Threat Assessment Section and sends out a cease-and-desist letter. Tabler said such letters were "rare and only used under extreme circumstances."
How recently the letter was sent or how many such letters have been sent remains unclear. Another member of Cotton's staff, John Noonan, wrote a series of tweets that implied only one letter had been sent. He gave a list of reasons why one particular constituent of Cotton's received a cease-and-desist letter, and it involves the kind of "unprofessional and unbecoming language" the Arkansas constituent mentioned above referenced.
In response to a tweet from the ACLU, Noonan wrote, "1. This went out to a single constituent, not a group. 2. That constituent called a 19 year old intern a c***. 3. Constituent had multiple warnings.4. We have a very different understanding of 'harassment.'" In an apparent reference to the Cotton staff member on the receiving end of the insults, Noonan later added, "Republican and Democrat Congressional staff, most of them entry level, deal with daily abuse you wouldn't believe."
Fleming, the Arkansas Times contributor, did not appear convinced by Noonan's explanation. He took his own case to Twitter, writing, "I'm not sure why anyone trust a Senator or their staff who've already been caught in a huge lie," going on to write, "Only one side has zero credibility. It ain't @OZRKIndivisible."
Noonan also linked to an Arkansas Online article that quotes the state's senior senator, John Boozman, rejecting the idea of sending a cease-and-desist letter to a constituent simply because that person used profanity. Patrick Creamer, a spokesman for Boozman, said such an action is not "something that he would really contemplate."
Stacey Lane told Arkansas Online that she was on the receiving end of such a letter from Cotton after using profanity on a few phone calls with his staff. She noted that she'd also used "salty" language in contact with Boozman and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, but neither had ever responded with a cease-and-desist letter.
Another constituent, Don Ernst of Little Rock, told Arkansas Online he'd tried unsuccessfully to get information on Cotton's policies on the United States Disability Act and the opioid crisis a grand total of 17 times. When he used the word "bullsh*t" during his 18th call, he told the news outlet, the staffer hung up on him and he later learned he'd receive a cease-and-desist letter. Ernst says he never did receive the letter, but the ordeal "scared me, frankly."