Twitter sues government for trying to unmask 'rogue' federal Twitter account

The social media site delivers a forceful defense of the First Amendment rights of the anti-Trump "alternative agency" Twitter accounts.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer

Twitter is taking the federal government to court over its attempt to unmask the identity of the person (or people) behind @ALT_USCIS, one of the "rogue" federal Twitter accounts that have cropped up in opposition to the Trump administration.

The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court in the Northern District of California, targets the US Department of Homeland Security, US Customs and Border Protection, DHS chief John Kelly and three other Customs officials.

In it, Twitter alleges that the government abused a "limited-purpose investigatory tool" to try to reveal the real identity of @ALT_USCIS, which claims to be run by one or more employees of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Not only was the government abusing that tool, but its attempts violate Twitter users' First Amendment rights to disseminate anonymous or pseudonymous political speech, the suit argues.

Specifically, the suit claims that on March 14, a special agent from Customs and Border Protection issued Twitter an administrative summons demanding records to reveal the identity of @ALT_USCIS. However, Twitter argues, the summons relies on congressionally-granted authorities that only allow CBP to compel the production of a narrow class or records relating to imported merchandise.

The information sought by the CBP (a branch of the DHS) "plainly has nothing whatsoever to do" with imported merchandise, the suit says.

Furthermore, argues that complying with the summons would have a "grave chilling effect" on that account and the many other "alternative agency" accounts that were created to voice political dissent.

"The Supreme Court has long recognized the extraordinary value of the kind of speech emanating from these accounts -- pure political speech criticizing government policies and highlighting government waste and mismanagement," the suit says. "And the Court has likewise recognized that anonymity is often essential to fostering such political speech where, as here, the speaker could face retaliation or retribution if his or her real identity were linked to the speech."

Twitter is asking the court to declare the summons unlawful.

Meanwhile, the ACLU said Thursday that it will be representing the Twitter user in this case.

"The right to anonymously speak out against the government is clearly protected by the First Amendment," said ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler in a statement. "We are pleased to see Twitter standing up for its users' rights, and the ACLU will soon be filing documents in court on behalf of this user. To unmask an anonymous speaker online, the government must have a strong justification. But in this case the government has given no reason at all, leading to concerns that it is simply trying to stifle dissent."

Check out the suit below:

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