Twitter 'Alt Account' Lawsuit Exposes Trump Team's Effort to Stomp Out Dissent
Complying with U.S. Customs and Border Protection summons 'would have a grave chilling effect,' Twitter argues in lawsuit
Twitter dropped its lawsuit against the federal government on Friday after U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) withdrew its summons demanding the social media company unmask the identity of the person or people behind one of the of "alt" accounts to criticize the Trump administration. The company had filed the lawsuit Thursday, and was notified on Friday by CBP that the summons was withdrawn.
"The speed with which the government buckled shows just how blatantly unconstitutional its demand was in the first place," said Esha Bhandari, one of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorneys who represents the Twitter user.
"Speaking anonymously about issues of the day is a longstanding American tradition, dating back to when the framers of the Constitution wrote under pseudonyms. The anonymity that the First Amendment guarantees is often most essential when people criticize the government, and this free speech right is as important today as ever," said Bhandari.
Twitter has pushed back against the federal government's demand that the social media company reveal the identity of the user or users behind one of the of "alt" accounts that emerged in January in creative protest of the Trump administration.
The Twitter account in question is @ALT_uscis, which describes itself as "immigration resistance" and not expressing "the views of DHS [Department of Homeland Security] or USCIS [U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services]."
According to the lawsuit (pdf), filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Twitter was delivered on March 14 a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) summons that would force it to unmask who was behind that account. The summons asked that the records be turned over the day before—the 13th.
Twitter argues that the "customs" tool employed by CBP has no relevance, as it is meant to deal with imported merchandise, and, beyond that, the defendants have failed to show that "some criminal or civil offense has been committed, that unmasking the users' identity is the least restrictive means for investigating that offense, that the demand for this information is not motivated by a desire to suppress free speech, and that the interests of pursuing that investigation outweigh the important First Amendment rights of Twitter and its users."
Obeying that order "would have a grave chilling effect on the speech of that account in particular and on the many other 'alternative agency' accounts that have been created to voice dissent to government policies," the suit states.
Twitter's push-back drew praise from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an organization that seeks to defend "civil liberties in the digital world."
"EFF applauds Twitter for standing up for users' free speech and swiftly pushing back on the government's attempts to identify a prominent critic. The government must not be able to use its formidable investigatory powers to intimidate and silence its critics, and CBP made almost no effort to justify its request. As Twitter's complaint explains, the request should be barred by the First Amendment," wrote Andrew Crocker, a staff attorney on EFF's civil liberties team.
American Oversight, a group dedicated to fighting for accountability from the Trump administration, also weighed in on the lawsuit.
According to Austin Evers, executive director of the group, "Homeland Security's effort to stretch an obscure customs regulation to stifle political dissent is deeply troubling. This raises serious questions about the new administration. We have a right to know whether this action was ordered by political leadership or even the White House. While government officials don't have the right to expose the identities of people who criticize them, the American people do have the right to identify government officials who try to abuse their power."
The American Civil Liberties Union wrote on Twitter that it would be defending the user in court:
Twitter might have a strong case that the summons was improper, said Paul Alan Levy, staff attorney at Public Citizen Litigation Group who specializes in online privacy and free speech issues.
"I don't think there is any way for the government to come out of this looking good," Levy said.
The "alt immigration" account, which has over 140,000 followers, has tweeted of the lawsuit: "This is not just about our account. This is about all twitter users whether you agree with our view point or not"; and "If they win here, where will they stop? who will be next?"