WASHINGTON >> A court ruled today that an internet hosting company must turn over records for a website that the government alleges was used to plan violent protests on the day of President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Defense lawyers warned that the ruling by the District of Columbia Superior Court could have a chilling effect on electronic political activism and freedom of expression.
Judge Robert Morin ordered DreamHost to provide the Justice Department with records for a website called disruptj20.org from October 2016, when the site debuted, to January 2017. Prosecutors allege the site was used to organize anti-Trump protests on Jan. 20, when more than 200 people were arrested after protesters broke windows and set fire to a limousine.
Government lawyers originally obtained a search warrant for the site’s records last month. But DreamHost challenged the request as overly broad and infringing on the rights of free speech and political expression for the site’s approximately 1.3 million visitors.
In response to those concerns, the Justice Department presented a scaled-down request to the court earlier this week, specifying that it was only seeking evidence of violent or criminal activity being planned for the inauguration.
Lawyers for DreamHost argued that turning over the records would give the government access to names of thousands of Trump opponents who simply visited the site or participated in the protests in a peaceful way. They argued that those people wouldn’t want their names in the hands of a government they oppose.
“The case is not about protecting the information once it’s been turned over. It’s about preventing the information from being turned over in the first place,” said Chris Ghazarian, general counsel for DreamHost.
In their modified request for information, prosecutors stressed they were targeting only those who used the site to plot violence and not political dissidents who may have casually visited it. They said any information produced by the company that falls outside the scope of the warrant would be set aside, placed under seal and made unavailable to the government without a further court order.
Judge Morin, in approving the government’s request, specified that the government’s process of sifting and vetting the raw information would be closely monitored and he would personally supervise what he called the “minimization program” to ensure that information outside the scope of the government’s request was protected and sealed.
DreamHost’s representatives said those court-ordered safeguards probably wouldn’t assuage the fears of those who visited the website who don’t trust the government’s intentions or legal restrictions.
“The government will be in possession of this information and the government will be sifting through this information. That right there is problematic,” said Raymond Aghaian, one of the lawyers representing the company. “That in DreamHost’s view has a chilling effect on political expression.”