Judge says Twitter's lawsuit over national security letters can move forward

Twitter's suit argues the company should be able to disclose exactly how many national security orders it has received.

A US judge on Thursday rejected the federal government's attempt to halt a lawsuit from Twitter over the discussion of national security letters.

Following the Edward Snowden revelations, Twitter filed a suit in 2014 challenging the legal limits on the information companies can share regarding national security letters (NSLs). Currently, companies may only disclose a range of NSLs they have received (such as within zero to 499 in a six-month period). Twitter wants to disclose the specific number they've received.

See also: National security letters: Everything you need to know

The US Justice Department asked US District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers to throw out the case, arguing that disclosing that level of detail about NSLs would harm national security. However, Rogers wrote Thursday that "the Government has not met its high burden to overcome the strong presumption of unconstitutionality on the record before the Court.

"The Government's restrictions on Twitter's speech are content-based prior restraints subject to the highest level of scrutiny under the First Amendment," the judge wrote. "The restrictions are not narrowly tailored to prohibit only speech that would pose a clear and present danger or imminent harm to national security."

In response to Thursday's development, Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey retweeted a response from the Twitter Policy account:

The FBI uses NSLs to compel companies to turn over data without a warrant, they're served almost exclusively in secret with an indefinite gag order. Twitter and other companies have started issuing transparency reports, sharing limited information about data that the government has requested.

In its lawsuit, Twitter argues that the opacity surrounding NSL requests could potentially have a chilling effect on its users' speech. Furthermore, the company argues that restricting information about the scope of a government surveillance program prevents the public from being able to scrutinize it.

In her order Thursday, Rogers directed the government to expedite the appropriate national security clearances for Twitter's lead counsel. A hearing in the case is scheduled for next month.

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