The 26-year-old blogger had tangled before with officers of local police departments who work for TriMet, the transit agency Jensen regularly investigates, exposes and harangues on his blog, Portland Transit Lane.
In the past, Jensen had recorded arguments with transit police and posted them to his website. But his dealings with them had always been peaceable until Oct. 17, when four officers walked into his place of work, shoved him up against a pole, handcuffed him and took away his cellphone.
“We’re keeping this for evidence,” one officer said, according to Jensen. “You’re not getting this back for a long time.”
It was Jensen’s use of that phone that had brought the police to his workplace at Prestige Limousines. Two nights earlier, Jensen had been trying to get TriMet press spokeswoman Roberta Altstadt to answer questions about the transit agency’s security after a 15-year-old boy was shot and killed at the Holgate MAX station.
Altstadt ignored Jensen, so he used an automated text program to send her 31 messages over four hours to her personal cellphone.
“So what is it going to take to get safety on the buses?” the texts asked. “How many more lives will it take? 1? 10? 100? 1,000? A driver being killed while in the seat?”
Jensen sent texts after Altstadt asked him to stop, and he now faces charges on 20 counts of telephonic harassment, a misdemeanor. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of six months and a $2,500 fine.
The case raises serious questions about the boundaries of journalism and advocacy in the Internet age. The police seized not just his phone but also his laptop. TriMet has also barred him from speaking to anyone at the agency except a designated contact person and from attending any TriMet board meeting where Altstadt is present. (Jensen often testifies—loudly—at the board meetings.)
Sandra Baron, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center in New York, says she recalls “remarkably few cases” where a journalist has been charged with harassment.
“The part that’s as troubling as the case itself is the seizure of a cellphone or a laptop,” Baron says. “There’s material on there that may not be related in any way, shape or form to his unlawful conduct. That’s very disturbing.”
TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch says her agency doesn’t consider Jensen to be a journalist. Jensen says TriMet is trying to muzzle him.
“Anybody who follows my blog knows I push limits as far as I can go,” Jensen says. “This time, I may have pushed too far. But jail time? That seems way too extreme.”
With a buzz cut, glasses and cheeks that blush beet red, Jensen gives off the impression of a socially awkward, easily excitable lab technician. His voice rises to a singsong when he’s amused, or a scream when he’s upset.
Jensen makes no pretense of being likable or objective. He relishes the hacktivist role of Internet nemesis, bent on exposing unflattering facts about TriMet.
“He’s not completely sensitive to other people around him,” says Al Margulies, a former bus driver who also lambastes the agency and has become Jensen’s closest cohort. “It’s not business as usual for TriMet with him around.”
Jensen’s crusade began in September 2012, when he took a TriMet bus from his home in Troutdale to a Fred Meyer store to buy Cheez-Its and a Diet Pepsi. He missed his bus, and then the next one broke down, stranding him for two hours. He lost his call-center job when he reported late for work. “So I started taking my revenge out on TriMet,” he says.
Most journalists wouldn’t recognize Jensen’s methods. He yells at TriMet board members and once tried to perform a citizen’s arrest on board president Bruce Warner for canceling a scheduled meeting. He posts photos of TriMet executives on his blog with obscene captions—and lists their home telephone numbers.
But Jensen has also managed a few scoops in one year of reporting. He drew attention to former TriMet board member Tiffany Sweitzer, president of Pearl District developer Hoyt Street Properties, remaining on the board this summer after her term expired.
When Gov. John Kitzhaber appointed Joe Esmonde to the board, Jensen discovered he didn’t live in his district. Kitzhaber’s office called it a clerical error.
Michael Andersen, who runs the transit magazine Portland Afoot, says Jensen deserves credit as a government watchdog.
“Lane is often obnoxious, regularly disruptive and probably counterproductive to his own agenda, but none of that is illegal,” Andersen says. “His advocacy journalism isn’t always right, but it’s regularly useful.”
Jensen’s methods have drawn the scrutiny of transit authorities before.
Last December, he began wearing a TriMet jacket and hat loaned to him by Margulies. Jensen says he wore the outfit to signal TriMet drivers they should talk to him about their complaints. A police report shows a TriMet road supervisor questioned Jensen about impersonating a TriMet employee and tried to confiscate the hat, but found no evidence of a crime.
In February, Jensen used a cellphone camera to document transit supervisors excluding him from riding TriMet for 30 days—because he stood on a MAX platform without boarding a train. The ban was dismissed.
In June, he used the automatic texting program SMS Scheduler to text TriMet managers, including Altstadt, every five minutes.
“When will non-union employees stop getting benefits and pensions after 3 years, while drivers have to wait 10-20?” the text read. “Who’s got the harder job?”
An affidavit filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court says Altstadt told him if he contacted her again, she’d report him to police.
On Oct. 15, four nights after 15-year-old Abukar Madey was
fatally shot in the head at the Holgate MAX stop, Jensen began using
his auto-text program again.
Jensen says he found Altstadt’s personal cellphone numbers in internal TriMet documents. His messages weren’t intended to unnerve the recipients, he says, but press them for a response.
“How is that threatening in any way, shape or form?” he asks. “There’s no threat. It’s asking them the hard questions that they don’t want to answer.”
The day after Jensen sent the texts, Officer Tony Cereghino of the Milwaukie Police Department who was assigned to the transit patrol, called Jensen and asked him if he remembered Altstadt telling him not to contact her.
“I seem to remember that,” Jensen said in the phone conversation, which he taped. “I apologize. I will take her off my list and not text her again.”
But the call from the cop wasn’t a courtesy call—court records show Cereghino was trying to get Jensen to admit he had texted Altstadt after she had asked him to stop.
The next afternoon, transit police arrived at Jensen’s job and arrested him.
At his first hearing Oct. 18, a judge ordered Jensen to take down a blog post titled “Want to Annoy Roberta Altstadt?” that listed her cellphone number.
Altstadt says Jensen violated her privacy by posting her personal cell phone, then repeatedly texting it.
“Based on comments on his blog and his past actions involving numerous employees,” she says, “I fear the behavior will escalate and threaten my personal safety.”
Fetsch tells WW the agency has had no direct involvement in the case. She says Altstadt filed a report with transit police because a transit officer had seen her tell Jensen to stop contacting her.
“Regarding Mr. Jensen’s claiming he was arrested because he’s TriMet’s biggest critic: This is absolutely false,” Fetsch says. “He was arrested because he broke the law.”
Fetsch notes that Jensen has written on his blog about carrying a knife and gun when he rides the bus. She says that indicates he’s a possible threat.
Jensen says he’s never carried a weapon and that Fetsch is distorting what’s on his blog. He says he’s written that he and others might as well carry a weapon given TriMet’s lax security, and that he did so as a rhetorical device.
Jensen says he’s refused a plea bargain offered by the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office. He would serve six days in jail, 30 hours of community service and three years’ probation—and agree to have no further contact with Altstadt.
Police are still holding his Samsung Galaxy S4 phone and Lenovo laptop as evidence.
While he awaits trial next month, Jensen has kept his job. He rides the MAX to work each day. He has no choice, he says.
“I have no other way of getting around.”