Judge allows Trump administration to collect names of protest website visitors
There is concern that the judge's ruling can have a chilling effect on people who visit websites that help plan demonstrations. Many at the Women's March the day after Inauguration Day, for example, visited various websites that helped plan the demonstration pictured above. | AP

Potentially violating the rights of more than a million people who visited a political website, Chief Judge Robert Morin of the District of Columbia Superior Court approved on Aug. 24 a government search warrant to obtain names of visitors to the website, which helped organize Inauguration Day protests.

DreamHost, a Los Angeles-based web hosting company, was instructed by Morin to turn over data about visitors to the website distruptj20.org, which was used by political activists who organized demonstrations at the time of Trump’s presidential Inauguration in January.

Morin will oversee the review of data, and said that the government must explain what protocols it will use to ensure prosecutors do not seize data from “innocent users.”

During Inauguration Day, over 200 people were arrested for “rioting” and “vandalism” in downtown Washington, which led to the Justice Department’s warrant request for the records connected to the website. The Justice Department’s claim was that the site helped cause the chaos by “facilitating” the planning of the protests that later erupted into chaos.

Arguing that the scope of the warrant was too broad and violated the rights of 1.3 million visitors who were simply expressing their political beliefs, DreamHost opposed the request.

The Justice Department proposed limiting the scope of the warrant last week to exclude IP addresses of website visitors and to only search records from July 1, 206 to Jan. 20. DreamHost again argued that the scope was overly broad, as it could include people who sent emails to disruptj20 addresses.

Morin said he recognized the tension between free speech and the Justice Department’s need to search digital records for evidence. He said his order granting the government’s request would include safeguards to balance the two concerns.

Ruling from the bench after the 90-minute hearing, Morin also limited scope of the search from when the website was created in October, 2016 to Inauguration Day, and is preventing the Justice Department from publicizing the data collected, including the sharing of  information collected with other government agencies.

“It’s a tremendous step in terms of further limiting what the government can do,” said Raymond Aghaian, DreamHosts attorney, when speaking to Reuters. “But the company still has concerns about the chilling effect of data being turned over for government review and is considering an appeal.”


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.