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Public Citizen Urges Court to Protect Internet Users Who Emailed Trump Protest Website

Sept. 1, 2017

Public Citizen Urges Court to Protect Internet Users Who Emailed Trump Protest Website

U.S. Department of Justice Has No Probable Cause to Believe Users’ Identities Will Contain Evidence of Criminal Intent

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Internet users who had an email connection with a website domain planning protests for President Donald Trump’s inauguration have the right to speak and read anonymously, Public Citizen told a court today.

Public Citizen, on behalf of three anonymous users who sent or received emails from addresses on the DisruptJ20.org domain, and/or were members of at least one of its listservs, filed a motion (PDF) to intervene in an ongoing case. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is seeking the users’ identities and the content of their communications as part of a criminal investigation against the 230 people arrested during Trump’s inauguration weekend.

The users have the First Amendment right to read and speak anonymously on the internet, Public Citizen wrote in the motion filed with the D.C. Superior Court. The affidavit accompanying the government’s search warrant for the users’ information was misleading in many respects, and federal prosecutors have no probable cause to believe that documentation revealing the users’ identities will contain evidence of criminal intent or planning of illegal activity, Public Citizen said.

“The prosecutors claim to be respectful of First Amendment rights of anonymous Internet users who were not involved with creating the website,” said Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy. “That claim is belied by their insistence on obtaining the users’ identifying information even though there is no reason to suspect that those users had any knowledge of a conspiracy to foment a riot. After all, it is the supposed connection between the website and the conspiracy that forms the basis for the search warrant and the accusations against the web site operators.”

The government originally sought 1.3 million IP addresses of users who visited the site, and Public Citizen filed a motion at that time on behalf of five other anonymous “Does” who had visited the website. The government later pared down its request.

D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Robert E. Morin last week decided that DreamHost, the platform that hosts DisruptJ20.org, must hand over to the DOJ emails and other computer information of users who interacted with the site before Trump’s inauguration. Morin also directed the parties to propose procedures for the government’s review of the information.

The court issued last week’s order without first notifying the DOE users who had sent or received emails from the domain, thus denying them a chance to protect their anonymity. The anonymous email users are intervening to have a say in the specific terms of the order and to enable them to appeal if needed to protect their rights.

Read more about the case.