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Ruling in Trump Protest Case Protects Anonymous Speech but Limits Protections for Organizers

For Immediate Release:
Nov. 13, 2017

Ruling in Trump Protest Case Protects Anonymous Speech but Limits Protections for Organizers

Statement of Paul Alan Levy, Attorney, Public Citizen Litigation Group

Note: D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Robert E. Morin has published a ruling on the objections raised by three Facebook account holders and three anonymous Facebook users. They objected to federal prosecutors’ search warrants issued in connection with the prosecution of 200 protestors who have been indicted for allegedly participating in a riot during protests of the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

We are pleased that the court agreed with the need to protect First Amendment rights and correctly ruled that the U.S. government has no probable cause to think our clients were involved in criminal activity leading up to the inauguration protests. Simply interacting with a political Facebook page or communicating with an organizer does not make one a criminal.

Under the court’s decision, federal prosecutors will not be able to access the anonymous Does’ identities or their Facebook communications with the organizers of the J20 protests. And the opinion provides a fine explanation of the need to apply careful scrutiny of search warrants directed at political protest activity. The protections for anonymous speech adopted by this court are needed to shield protesters against the chilling effect that unbridled search techniques would otherwise create.

However, the court’s compromise approach will allow the government to review the private Facebook accounts of the J20 media contacts, Lacey MacAuley and Legba Carrefour, with fewer protections in place than the Doe contacts enjoyed, even though the police will be able to keep copies only of anything that pertains to the ongoing prosecutions.

The decision represents a mixture of good and bad: It provides strong protections for the anonymous third parties who communicated with the protest page and the accounts, and for the owner of the protest page. But it provides fewer protections for the individual account holders – ironically, the very people who are likely to be the most in need to privacy protections.

Learn more about the case.