The U.S. government has no legal justification for seeking out the identities of people who accessed a website organizing protests for President Trump’s inauguration, Public Citizen argued in court yesterday.
“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,” Levy said.
Public Citizen represents five anonymous objectors who are 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 people who visited the website.
"Surveillance and perhaps worse"
The search warrant was filed as part of a criminal prosecution against the 230 people arrested during the counter-inaugural actions on Jan. 20.
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 who has chosen to reveal his identity was Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. Weissman said he 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.