Twitter is no longer suing the Department of Homeland Security to stop it from demanding the identity of an anonymous user critical of President Donald Trump, after the agency withdrew its summons.
According to Twitter's complaint, filed in California on Thursday, a Customs and Border Protection agent faxed the company a summons in March asking for the "records regarding the twitter account @ALT_USCIS to include, User name, account login, phone numbers, mailing addresses, and I.P. addresses." Twitter's complaint said the officer had ordered the company to get records to a Washington, D.C.-based CBP office "by 11:45 A.M. on March 13, 2017—the day before the CBP Summons was faxed to Twitter.”
But Twitter dropped the case a day after filing once "counsel for defendants from the Department of Justice" informed it CBP had "withdrawn the summons and that the summons no longer has any force or effect," according to an updated filing shared with Nextgov.
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The company then voluntarily dismissed the claims. The original filing identified DHS and CBP, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, CBP Acting Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, CBP Special Agent Stephen Caruso and CBP Special Agent Adam Hoffman as defendants.
@ALT_USCIS, whose content is branded in its bio as "#altgov" and "not the views of DHS or USCIS," has amassed more than 152,000 followers and tweets messages often opposing that of the administration. Twitter's lawyers had argued this user, and all others, have the “right to disseminate such anonymous or pseudonymous political speech" under the First Amendment.
"To the NEW [Make America Great Again] FOLKS: we never advocated for illegal immigration, we advocate for due process for anyone human! It is a right!" one Tweet reads.
@ALT_USCIS is one of many similar accounts spouting "resistance"-themed messages, which have proliferated since Trump took office, Twitter's lawyers noted. Others, including @alt_labor, referencing the Labor Department, and @blm_alt, referencing the Bureau of Land Management, “purport to be current or former employees of federal agencies, or others with special insights about the agencies, who provide views and commentary that is often vigorously opposed, resistant, or ‘alternative’ to the official actions and policies of the new administration.”
CBP, which does not generally comment on pending litigation, declined requests to elaborate on its case.
Esha Bhandari, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represents Twitter, noted in a statement that "speed with which the government buckled shows just how blatantly unconstitutional its demand was in the first place."
Requesting the identity of anonymous social media users without any indication of criminal conduct is unprecedented, Debra D'Agostino, an employment attorney with the Federal Practice Group, told Nextgov in an interview. Though the Obama administration did request the identity of some users it suspected were dangerous, she said this is the first case she's heard of in which the user was simply critical of the administration.
The same protections would apply even if the user weren't anonymous, and were using their full name on their Twitter account, she added. The Hatch Act, which limits federal employees' ability to express views on elections, candidates running for office, doesn't apply to basic disagreements with the administration, she said.
"Federal employees have every right to express their disagreement the same as anyone else in this country," D'Agostino said. "I think people are using the alt accounts because they’re afraid, and apparently rightfully so, but they don’t have to post anonymously."