A web hosting company is fighting back against what it calls an overreaching request from Department of Justice prosecutors, who are attempting to force the company to provide information about visitors to a website used to help organize protests around the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
In a blog post Monday, web hosting company DreamHost detailed that it has been working with the federal government for months over the information request, but says the order is overly broad and represents a “strong example of investigator overreach and a clear abuse of government authority.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia obtained a search warrant in July from a Superior Court judge that targets one of DreamHost’s clients, disruptj20.org, a website that has information about several protests that were planned for Jan. 20. The warrant orders DreamHost to turn over “all files” related to that website.
But DreamHost has refused the government’s request, arguing the warrant is so broad it would force the company to hand over 1.3 million visitor IP addresses to the website, as well as user “contact information, email content and photos of thousands of people” in an effort to determine “who simply visited the website.”
“In essence, the Search Warrant not only aims to identify the political dissidents of the current administration, but attempts to identify and understand what content each of these dissidents viewed on the website,” court documents read.
The information being requested could be used to identify any individuals who used the website to express political speech protected by the First Amendment, DreamHost argues.
“That should be enough to set alarm bells off in anyone’s mind,” the web hosting company’s blog post reads.
More than 200 protesters were arrested during Trump’s inauguration, and most face criminal charges. D.C. prosecutors believe that on Inauguration Day, some protesters smashed in restaurant windows, set a limousine on fire and attacked its driver, among other crimes alleged, The Washington Post reported.
And while seeking information about suspects charged with crimes is standard for any investigation, the broad request of the warrant has troubled many legal experts who say it may be unconstitutional.
“It’s a fairly recklessly broad demand,” said Ken White, a defense attorney at Brown, White & Osborn in Los Angeles who writes on the law-oriented blog Popehat. White explained that the warrant doesn’t seem to seriously consider the possible ways it might run afoul of the First Amendment. He said that could be the result of “simple shoddy work and inadequate judicial oversight” rather than “intentionally malevolent overreach.”
In a blog post about the case, White wrote that the move by the Trump administration is particularly chilling because the administration has “expressed so much overt hostility to protesters, so relentlessly conflated all protesters with those who break the law, and so deliberately framed America as being at war with the administration’s domestic enemies.”
White said he found the warrant to be “very disturbing” and potentially unconstitutional as it appears this administration is engaging “in what amounts to a search warrant to get an enemies list.”
Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, told HuffPost that a request to disclose more than a million visitor IP addresses is “very unusual” and disturbing.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has said that forced disclosure chills speech. Visiting a website is First Amendment activity and this is quite troubling,” Chemerinsky said.
Ben Feuer, chairman of the California Appellate Law Group and a former clerk on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, said the warrant appears to be “dramatically overbroad.”
“The Fourth Amendment was written precisely to prevent this sort of mass sweep of data, without any particularized suspicion of wrongdoing or individualized basis to seize lists of Americans who accessed a website about political dissent,” Feuer said.
It’s a data dump of one of the most sensitive types of information there is, Feuer explained ― “lists of individuals engaged in political disagreement with the administration in power.” He added that there is a “very real risk” that the government could use lists of opponents for later targeting, “even if no criminal activity is ever discovered” by the search.
“The warrant seems to be on very questionable constitutional footing,” Feuer said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia declined to comment on the case and the criticisms of its filing.
A hearing was set for Friday, but Bill Miller, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C., said it is being rescheduled for another date that has not yet been set. The case is expected to come before Chief Judge Robert E. Morin of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, Miller said.