ASNE joins in letter: DOJ's request for Trump protesters' data hurts free speech
ASNE and APME were part of many organizations that fought against a wide-ranging search warrant issued by the Department of Justice as part of its investigation into various Inauguration Day protests, which led to property damage around Washington, D.C. Our voices were heard, leading the DOJ to amend its initial request for information from DreamHost, which hosted the DisruptJ20.org website, which is alleged to have been a planning ground for the protests and contained information, which could be used to identify those who committed criminal acts. However, the D.C. Superior Court is still going to let the DOJ access certain information about site users in a manner that is broader than we'd like.
The DOJ initially issued a very broad request to DreamHost seeking a wide swath of information covering approximately 1.3 million people, including those who simply visited this website. A D.C. Superior Court judge approved this warrant. DreamHost immediately tried to quash the warrant so that it wouldn't have to turn over this information. This is when ASNE and APME joined more than 100 organizations in a letter to Attorney General, which explained the dangers of such a broad search warrant, primarily that the government was seeking information about people who simply visited a public website but might have had no involvement in any criminal activities (they might never have been to Washington). Such a request would be likely to chill the free speech of Internet users.
Before we sent this letter, the DOJ announced that it would be narrowing the scope of its request to exclude information about site visitors and unpublished drafts and images from site users and limiting the time period for the request to July 1, 2016, through Jan. 20, 2017. However, it would still be seeking published content and transactional data, including names of registered site users and communications between those users and between users and DreamHost. Our letter was modified slightly and sent to Attorney General Sessions on Aug. 24.
The D.C. Superior Court did hold a hearing on DreamHost's request to quash the warrant. The chief judge of the D.C. Superior Court, Robert E. Morin, affirmed the basic validity of the government's request as a reasonable means of gathering information in its investigation of a crime but forced the DOJ to comply with certain procedures designed to protect individual rights, including identifying all government officials who will have access to the data. He explained how the DOJ will review the information and required the DOJ to turn all information over to the court until any and all of DreamHost's appeals are exhausted. Thus, the court is taking the “chilling effects” arguments seriously, but there is still a real threat to free speech. We hope that the D.C. Court of Appeals will overturn the Superior Court's ruling - or at least further limit the scope of this request.