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It’s time to stand up to political intimidation. Our democracy demands it.


It’s time to stand up to political intimidation. Our democracy demands it.

Mar 17, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Heath Druzin
It’s time to stand up to political intimidation. Our democracy demands it.
Idaho Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, asks a question of Rep. Bruce D. Skaug, R-Nampa, during the House State Affairs committee meeting at the State Capitol building on Jan. 11, 2023. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

The envelope arrived with a Blanchard, Idaho, return address. 

“How quaint,” I thought. “Old-fashioned snail mail from Idaho.” But this was no love letter.

“You are hereby notified that you are violating federal copyright laws … You have been found to be illegally posting or reporting or continuing to post the photo In support of the 1st Amendment … A federal copyright lawsuit is now being commenced against you … you will be liable for damages as high as $150,000 per activity … You have 24 hours to permanently remove it from all of your social media accounts … ” 

But notified by who? The letter was unsigned except for a mention of “Stonefly Studios.” A quick search revealed it is the studio of Andrew Scott, who is married to Idaho State Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard.

Heather Scott is a well-known far-right politician in Idaho who has a history of close ties to militant anti-government forces. She was named in a 2019 domestic terrorism report prepared by the Rampart Group for the Washington House of Representatives for her alleged role in planning a 2016 armed standoff at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. She pledged an oath to the national militia The Oathkeepers, and two fellow GOP lawmakers said they saw her damaging a fire suppression system in the Idaho Capitol to remove a listening device she had imagined was planted in it. Fellow Republicans also said Scott told them women move up in the Legislature only if they “spread their legs.”

I have reported on some of these things, but that’s not why I was being threatened. 

In January, I had reposted a widely shared image of Scott proudly displaying a Confederate flag. Scott waved the symbol of slavery at a North Idaho parade in 2015, then posted it to her Facebook page. I used a screenshot of it in a Tweet to remind people about Scott’s background after she posted an ugly personal attack on fellow reporter Betsy Russell.

Rep. Scott’s husband, Andrew Scott, had taken the photo and was claiming I was violating his copyright.

It would have been easiest just to remove the Tweet after getting threatened with a lawsuit. Given the Tweet was a month old, I’m not sure anyone would have even noticed and why mess with the threat of a costly lawsuit, no matter how absurd, right?

That was the point of the letter: to intimidate me into not discussing an embarrassing episode for Rep. Scott. It’s the point of a lot of such letters to journalists. Knowing that the industry is in trouble and that individual reporters rarely have deep pockets, people in power think they can bully us.

I’m not having it. I’m not taking down the photo. 

Amid increasing attacks on our profession and attempts to discredit us, journalists can’t allow themselves to be intimidated. On top of that, I’m currently the visiting Pollner Professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism. What kind of message would it send to my students if I caved? I’m telling them that journalism, despite the lousy pay and public abuse you endure, is still the best job in the world and vitally important to democracy. Saying that while letting bullies win just doesn’t feel right. 

Don’t get me wrong, I consulted a lawyer – after all I am a journalist and I don’t have $150,000 burning a hole in my pocket. That lawyer is former U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson, who now works for Stoel Rives, LLP, and generously helps out Idaho reporters from time to time.

She told me she worries about increasing intimidation tactics against reporters like me.

“You’ve seen their overall rise, generally, of SLAPP lawsuits strategic lawsuits against public participation with the goal to have a chilling effect on the reporting that’s targeted,” Olson said.

SLAPP lawsuits can be copyright claims, like the one I got, but are often libel or defamation claims. Almost all of them are frivolous, but that only matters if the targeted journalist is able to fight back.

“Once a lawsuit is filed, to have to respond to one that litigation is expensive,” Olson said. “So the threat or the initiation of a lawsuit can be a deterrent to journalists or public commenters who don’t have a lot of resources.”

To be honest, I was a little surprised the Scotts bothered to send the threat. The photo has been pinging around the internet for nearly eight years and has run on multiple news sites. Plus, it seemed like Rep. Scott was proud of the photo. She put it up on her own Facebook page in the first place, and her husband gave the photo the soaring title “In support of the 1st Amendment.” It’s ironic that Andrew Scott would try to interfere with my own First Amendment rights in the name of a photo that purports to celebrate that same amendment, by flaunting a symbol of slavery and racism. 

I reached out to Rep. Scott and Andrew Scott, but neither got back to me.

My beat is extremism, and it’s not the first threat I’ve gotten from the far-right. Dave Reilly, white nationalist Idaho GOP activist threatened to sue me for calling him out for being an anti-Semite. “Be careful. I sue,” he wrote.

He backed off when I sent him a series of his own tweets he had unsuccessfully tried to scrub from the internet that attacked Jews and urged Americans to be more anti-Semitic.

So, the Scotts’ threat wasn’t the first one I’ve got, and I’m confident it won’t be the last. An increasing number of politicians want to silence journalists so that we don’t report hard truths about them. 

Much of it comes from the far-right, which has been egged on by politicians like Donald Trump, who uses the Stalinist (no really, look it up, it’s Stalin) smear “enemy of the people” to describe reporters. I’ve certainly experienced harassment at anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown rallies. But these threats, sometimes violent, come from all political corners. Just last September, a former Democratic public administrator in Las Vegas was accused of murdering journalist Jeff German, who had done damning reporting on the politician. 

America’s Democratic norms are increasingly under attack. Conspiracy theories have taken hold of an alarming portion of the population, including the baseless ideas that elections are being stolen. Support for political violence is unacceptably high. We, as journalists, have a duty to do our part to protect democracy by fairly reporting the news, holding powerful people responsible and pushing back on misinformation. Even though Andrew Scott threatened to sue me, I reached out to him and Rep. Scott multiple times to get their side of the story. I’ll continue to do that, even to politicians who hate what I do.

But being fair does not mean backing down, and I never will.

Editor’s note: For full disclosure, Wendy Olson has also provided attorney services to the Idaho Capital Sun.