On Thursday, Twitter cited ‘freedom of speech’ in a federal lawsuit it filed to block an order by the U.S. government which called for the social networking company to reveal the identity of an account opposed to President Trump’s immigration policies — even though the user appears to be (at least) one federal immigration employee.
Twitter said it obtained an administrative summons in March, along with the lawsuit, requesting that it hand over records related to the account, @ALT_uscis. “USCIS” refers to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the account describes itself as “immigration resistance.”
For weeks, @ALT_uscis has been posting tweets critical of the Trump administration, which has included stating advocates of Trump’s immigration policies must have been dropped on their head at birth, and ridiculing Trump for not donating more of his earnings to charity.
The summons received by Twitter stated records of the account are required to ensure compliance with customs and immigration matters, including duties, taxes, and fines. Twitter says the anonymous account does not fit into such laws and regulations since they are meant to investigate imported merchandise.
Twitter has a history of prosecuting in favor of its users’ privacy, including challenging government’s demands for information. In the lawsuit, Twitter states, “The rights of free speech afforded Twitter’s users and Twitter itself under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution include a right to disseminate such anonymous or pseudonymous political speech.”
Since Trump’s inauguration, several Twitter feeds have been created that use the names and logos of over a dozen U.S. governmental agencies and challenge the new administration’s policies on issues such as climate change.
Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) criticized the lawsuit, saying it is a waste of resources, yet requested that the Homeland Security inspector general look into who requested the “witch hunt” for the anonymous critic.
A staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, Esha Bhandari, said, “We have seen no reason the government has given for seeking to unmask this speaker’s identity.” She also said the government’s request was highly unusual and the right to anonymous speech against the government is “a bedrock American value” that is highly protected by the First Amendment.
The summons was signed by a Florida-based supervisor who works to investigate employee misconduct, mismanagement, and corruption. There is no indication that the White House is aware of the lawsuit. Twitter spokesman Nick Pacilio would not comment on whether the government had demanded information on other users in the past.
In addition, neither the Department of Homeland Security (the lawsuit’s defendant), the Justice Department (which would most likely defend the federal agency), nor the White House had any immediate comment on the pending litigation.
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