The congressman and the kid

LaMalfa’s office sends cease-and-desist letter to teenage critic

Joshua Brown (right, with his father, Robert) was inspired to get more political by the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “I wasn’t happy with either of the final options,” he says.

Joshua Brown (right, with his father, Robert) was inspired to get more political by the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “I wasn’t happy with either of the final options,” he says.

Photo courtesy of Joshua Brown

When 13-year-old Joshua Brown was studying the fundamentals of democracy last year, he was particularly inspired by the prescribed relationship between government officials and “we the people.”

“He learned in school that we live in a representative republic where elected officials serve the will of the people,” Joshua’s father, Robert, said this week by phone. “He’s very literal about some things … most things, actually.”

Joshua also learned it had been some years since his own congressman—Rep. Doug LaMalfa—held a town hall meeting in his hometown of Redding. The teenager began contacting LaMalfa’s office in February requesting such an event be scheduled, and—like many constituents in District 1—he’s continued to call, email and send letters regularly to express his concerns about the congressman’s policies. For his efforts, Joshua recently received a response he’d never expected: a cease-and-desist letter addressed to him and his parents from LaMalfa’s Washington, D.C., office.

“This letter is immediate notification that all verbal communication, emails, text messages, and office visits must cease and desist immediately with all offices of U.S. Representative Doug LaMalfa,” reads the letter dated Aug. 9. After directing the Browns to contact only the Washington, D.C., office in writing, the letter warns that “all other contact will be deemed harassment and reported to the United States Capitol Police.” It’s signed by Mark Spannagel, LaMalfa’s chief of staff.

Brown is a student at Shasta Charter Academy and a budding activist. His father is a disability rights advocate who’s taken his son along on lobbying trips to Sacramento, and Joshua’s ongoing, informal campaign to become mayor of that city when he’s legally allowed to run—and vote—at age 18 was featured on a local news station in July. He’s spent the last few months campaigning for Dennis Duncan, one of LaMalfa’s rivals in the upcoming 2018 election, and is also involved with Our Revolution—formerly the North State Berniecrats—and the Peace Initiative of Shasta County.

The Browns reported that LaMalfa’s camp was receptive to Joshua’s messages at first, with staffer Erin Ryan emailing the boy to thank him for visiting the Redding office.

“At first she was cordial, but as she became aware we opposed LaMalfa’s policy choices she became more belligerent and argumentative over time,” Robert said. Joshua claims that when the town hall was finally held on April 19, LaMalfa’s staff blocked his attempts to publicly address the congressman. Contacted by phone, Ryan declined an interview for this story.

In May, another LaMalfa staffer, Brenda Lee Haynes, posted to Joshua’s Facebook page in a conversation about separation of church and state. When Joshua mentioned he wasn’t religious, Haynes responded: “So the good news is you’ve at least identified your problem. Now you can begin to fix things. Good luck.” Later in the online conversation, she tells Joshua: “You have much to learn in life, but with your obvious lack of respect for your fellow man, chances are you won’t get very far.”

Joshua said the comments he regularly dispatches to the politician’s office are always focused on policies, noting LaMalfa’s stance on health care and support of increased military spending are some of his primary complaints. He occasionally posts blogs to the liberal politics site Daily Kos about his views and interactions with LaMalfa staff. An entry from Aug. 1 includes a recent letter to the congressman in which he writes, “Mr. LaMalfa, I have long been concerned that your actions are way out of touch with the needs of the American people. I think you’re a good man, I just think you don’t know what’s going on in the real world.”

He also doesn’t deny attempting contact often, which he and his father emphasized is his right.

So just how many times has he contacted LaMalfa?

“To be honest … too many to count,” Joshua said.

Mark Spannagel, LaMalfa’s chief of staff, spoke to the CN&R, but said he was unable to release much information.

“Due to privacy we cannot get into the full details of the situation,” Spannagel wrote via email Tuesday (Aug. 29). “These constituents are always welcome to have written communication. The extreme volume, tone and physical actions led us to believe it was best to limit communications to only the D.C. office and via writing.”

“The letter was written by and sent at the direction of the U.S. Capitol Police,” Spannagel added in a follow-up phone call.

Eva Malecki, communication director for the Capitol Police, would not confirm or deny that agency’s involvement, stating in an email that “we do not comment on these consultations or discuss how we carry out our protective responsibilities for Congress.”

The Browns insist that nothing they’ve submitted to LaMalfa could be construed as threatening or harassing, and that they’ve been to his office only once. Duncan, the opponent challenging LaMalfa in the 2018 election, vouched for Joshua’s character.

“He’s a bright kid from a good family,” Duncan said. “Quite frankly, I’m shocked LaMalfa’s office would send the letter. From my experiences with the family, I can’t imagine what they’d do to warrant that response.”

The elder Brown said he’s troubled by the situation beyond the fact that his son is involved: “As a disabled veteran, I’m offended at a very basic level that a member of the government would attempt to abridge the freedom of speech and freedom to seek a redress of grievances of a 13-year-old. I want an explanation.”

Joshua, who said he’s still figuring out how to respond to the cease-and-desist letter before contacting LaMalfa’s office again, took it a little further.

“I want a formal apology from all of them,” he said.