Commentary

Twitter Fights Feds Over Rogue Account

This January, soon after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, Twitter gained dozens of new protest accounts that appeared to have been created by federal employees who wanted to protest his policies.

The accounts, which are all anonymous, have handles like @RogueNASA, @AltNatParkSer and @AltUSPresident.

One of the accounts, @Alt_USCIS (the initials stand for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service), has particularly objected to Trump's immigration moves. The account, which has more than 140,000 followers as of this morning, sprang up after Trump issued his first travel ban, which prohibited people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.

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On January 28, in the initial hours after the ban went into effect, the account referenced the confusion swirling around issues like whether the ban applied to green card holders.  

"A WH [White House] unable not give clear directives on who,what to ban,and under what guidelines, can not be trusted to give orders to an army. #MuslimBan," the account tweeted.

On March 11, after news broke that someone had jumped a fence to access the White House, the account tweeted that a border fence with Mexico will also prove unsuccessful.

Now, the Trump administration is trying to unmask the operators of the account. Several weeks ago, the Customs and Border Protection agency served Twitter with a subpoena demanding information that could identify the people behind @Alt_USCIS.

Twitter on Thursday pushed back in court. The company, represented by former U.S. Solicitor General Seth Waxman, filed papers asking a federal judge to rule that the subpoena is unenforceable for at least two reasons. One is that the subpoena cites a law relating to merchandise importation -- something that the Alt_USCIS account doesn't appear to have ever addressed.

The second is that the accountholder has a First Amendment right to anonymously criticize the government.

"Permitting CBP to pierce the pseudonym of the @ALT_USCIS account would have a grave chilling effect on the speech of that account in particular and on the many other 'alternative agency' accounts that have been created to voice dissent to government policies," Twitter argues in its court papers, filed in the U.S. District Court in Northern California.

"Compelling Twitter to disclose information that would identify or lead to the identification of the person(s) who established and use the @ALT_USCIS account would chill the expression of particularly valuable political speech -- namely speech by current or former public employees, or others with special insight into operations of our government," the company added. "The Constitution does not permit a government agency to suppress dissent voiced by current or former employees in their private capacity."

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