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Public Citizen Represents Inauguration Protest Website Visitors Who Are Resisting DOJ Witch Hunt

Aug. 21, 2017

Public Citizen Represents Inauguration Protest Website Visitors Who Are Resisting DOJ Witch Hunt

First Amendment Gives Internet Users the Right to Read Anonymously Online

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. government has no legal justification for seeking out the identities of people who accessed a website organizing protests for President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Public Citizen told a court today.

Public Citizen represents five anonymous objectors seeking to intervene in an ongoing criminal case in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. In that case, the U.S. Department of Justice is trying to enforce a search warrant against Dreamhost, the internet platform that hosts the protest website, DisruptJ20.org, to obtain information about the more than 1.3 million IP addresses of people who visited the website.

The search warrant was filed as part of a criminal prosecution against the 230 people arrested during the counter-inaugural actions on Jan. 20. Dreamhost is resisting the warrant. Through the motion to intervene, Public Citizen asks the judge to allow the individuals whose rights are at issue to be heard in the proceeding.

“It would set a terrifying precedent if federal prosecutors were able to obtain the names of every member of the public who visited a website devoted to protesting the president of the United States,” said Paul Alan Levy, the Public Citizen attorney representing the anonymous visitors. “As our anonymous clients have told the Court, the price of looking at dissenting material should not be a visit from the FBI or a call from federal prosecutors demanding to know why they visited such a site.”

Some of the anonymous objectors represented by Public Citizen visited the site in connection with their political activism, while others visited in the course of writing articles in a journalistic capacity.

One visitor to the site was Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, who has chosen to reveal his identity. Weissman is a frequent organizer of – and participant in – non-violent protests. Weissman visited the site to determine whether it would be an appropriate event to attend with his children.

“The government has no business monitoring whether I visit websites critical of President Trump, and no business keeping tabs on the more than one million people like me who accessed DisruptJ20.org,” Weissman said. “If this warrant is enforced, many citizens will fear, with justification, that protesting – even seeking information related to political dissent – invites government surveillance and perhaps worse.”

In its filing, Public Citizen argues that the First Amendment protects the right to speak and read anonymously and that prosecutors have no legal basis for discovering the identities of those who accessed DisruptJ20.org.

A hearing on the government’s motion is set for 10 am EDT Thursday, Aug. 24.

Learn more about the case.