A Washington, D.C. judge on ordered web firm DreamHost to give the government data about individuals connected to a website used to organize protests against President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
DreamHost hosts Disruptj20.org, a website for organizing protests of Trump’s inauguration, Politico reports. The Justice Department originally sought a search warrant based on the argument that the site helped facilitate protests that became violent, resulting in the arrest of more than 200 people.
Nearly 200 of those individuals are facing criminal riot charges in connection with violence and property damage that occurred during inauguration protests in D.C. in January.
Chief Judge Robert E. Morin of the D.C. Superior Court said that he would restrict how the government reviews the material, in order to prevent impingement on First Amendment rights. The government will be required to disclose who searches the material and their process, as well as develop a plan to minimize searching unrelated material.
Nonetheless, DreamHost’s lawyers warned of a “chilling effect,” and suggested that they may appeal the court’s decision.
“Providing the information outright to the government for the government to review and identify who the individuals are and what they said in relation to political expression, speech, and exercising their right of association is entirely problematic,” said one DreamHost attorney.
The information sought by the Justice Department includes emails and other personal information of people who communicated with DisruptJ20, which prosecutors say contributed to a “premeditated riot” on the day of the inauguration.
The ruling comes after the Justice Department narrowed its original warrant, which would have sought information on all 1.3 million visitors to DisruptJ20. The original request brought serious criticism and a rebuke from DreamHost, which saw it as a dangerous infringement on its users’ political rights.
The Justice Department declared:
“The government values and respects the First Amendment right of all Americans to participate in peaceful political protests and to read protected political expression online. This Warrant has nothing to do with that right. The Warrant is focused on evidence of the planning coordination and participation in a criminal act – that is, a premeditated riot. The First Amendment does not protect violent, criminal conduct such as this.”
Last week, DreamHost revealed that the Justice Department had delivered it a warrant asking for “all files” related to DisruptJ20.org, a site the government says was used to organize a riot in downtown Washington, D.C., during the Inauguration. The Justice Department is pursing felony riot charges against nearly 200 people; 19 others have already pleaded guilty.
But even the new warrant has been criticized by digital rights activists. Mark Rumold, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, expressed his concerns.
“I’m still deeply uncomfortable with DOJ rifling through a bunch of First Amendment-protected communications,” Rumold said.
“These types of limitations are positive, and they help narrow the scope of the intrusion, but they don’t eliminate all of the concerns.”