Flashback: In 2017, a judge protected the identities of those who participated in anti-Trump riots


WASHINGTON, DC- On January 20, 2017, protests broke out across Washington, DC and other cities throughout the country to protest the inauguration of President Trump.

An anti-Trump website, DisruptJ20 was used to coordinate the protests, which in some cases turned violent. Remember the outrage from Congressional Democrats? Neither do we. 

The DOJ initiated an investigation to obtain the identities of those involved in organizing the protests. Well as one might expect, a DC district judge ordered the web hosting company, DreamHost to turn over information about the website, however ordered that the identities of users would be concealed.

Lawyers for DreamHost feared government retaliation against users who were “engaging in innocent political speech.” You know, the kind of speech that in 2020 had Trump supporters banned from social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

“We’re happy to see all of these changes to the original search warrant that are going to protect the constitutional rights of innocent internet users [emphasis added], which is what we have been fighting for from the beginning,” said the company’s general counsel, Christopher Ghazarian, Politico reported at the time.

The order, issued by Chief Judge Robert Morin directed DreamHost to provide lawyers from the DOJ files, messages and other information from the website, DisruptJ20.org which was used to coordinate the protests ahead of Trump’s inauguration.

However the company is now permitted to redact identities of individual users to be turned over to the government.

Contrast that with what has been going on since the riots at the US Capitol on January 6. Thus far, nearly 200 individuals have been identified and arrested in connection with the riots committed by an infinitesimal number among those gathered in Washington, DC to conduct a peaceful protest against the certification of Biden by Congress.

The judge ruled that in order to obtain identities of those involved in the 2017 riots, the Justice Department would be required to demonstrate to the court that their activity on the website was directly related to the ongoing criminal investigation of the Inauguration Day riots.

The order stated that the government “does not have the right to rummage through the information contained on DreamHost’s website and discover the identity of, or access communications by, individuals not participating in alleged criminal activity,” it stated.

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The case came about after DreamHost challenged a search warrant which the company’s attorneys said was overly broad, and would have required the disclosure of IP addresses of every visitor to the DisruptJ20 website.

Morin bought the argument, leading him to limit how the government could access information held on the web hosting company’s servers.

At a September 2017 hearing, Morin agreed to let investigators procure a quick look at the types of files DreamHost held about the website, and then propose a detailed search protocol.

The two sides then agreed to let the company redact the identities on the server, and then turning it over to investigators who could decide if they wanted to further investigate the identities of those involved.

Several individuals who had visited or interacted with the anti-Trump website had expressed concern about their identities being wrongly released to the government.

In addition, Internet and free speech advocates (who apparently existed back in 2017) had sharply criticized the terms of the first search warrant, complaining that it set a dangerous precedent and would provide the government with the identities of those individuals who disapprove of a sitting president.

They further complained that such information would amount to a violation of constitutional rights and could have a chilling effect on online political discourse [emphasis added]. Ah yes, the good old days when you could actually engage in political discourse online.

One attorney who challenged the original warrant said the revised order was better, but still had issues with it.

“I’m pleased that the judge adopted our more expansive and protecting definition of what identifying information has to be withheld from disclosure. That’s really important,’ said Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen.

An “online civil liberties group” (guess they also had those four years ago), The Electronic Frontier Foundation also was pleased with Morin’s order.

“We’re pleased to see the court exercise appropriate caution before allowing the government access to information held by DreamHost,” said Andrew Crocker of the EFF.

“The court recognized serious First Amendment interests raised by the government’s attempts to identify communications belonging to ordinary users of disruptj20.org without any evidence that these users are connected to its investigation. Allowing DreamHost to redact this information and requiring the government to articulate its search protocols are excellent first steps to preserving these users’ First Amendment rights.”

With that said, some other aspects were problematic according to Levy. NBC News reported that Levy’s concerns revolved around Morin’s approving of searching any redacted emails at all, noting that the government had not showed a good reason to look at those emails.

The case was related to another one involving DisruptJ20, whereby the Justice Department asked Facebook to turn over information about DisruptJ20-related accounts, including its main Facebook page which was subsequently renamed Resist This.

Ah yes, the good old days when you could actually engage in political discourse without fear of censorship.

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