WASHINGTON – Civil liberties lawyers are trying to block federal investigators from searching the Facebook accounts of local activists connected to protests of President Trump’s inauguration and for information the attorneys say would reveal the names of thousands of people who “liked” a political organizing page.
The search warrants, requested by prosecutors in Washington, are part of the government’s investigation into Jan. 20 demonstrations that injured police and damaged property in an area of downtown Washington.
In a court filing this week on behalf of three Facebook users, the American Civil Liberties Union said the warrants are too broad and would reveal private information about individuals unrelated to the investigation, in addition to the names of Facebook users who “liked” the public page of a group that helped plan the protests.
“We are deeply concerned about the government engaging in a fishing expedition,” said Scott Michelman, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of the District of Columbia.
Of particular concern, Michelman said, is that the government search would disclose “anti- administration dissident activities that would then be investigated by the very administration that they are protesting.”
None of the three people in the ACLU filing has been charged by the U.S. attorney with Inauguration Day-related crimes in which more than 200 people were arrested and accused of rioting.
The warrants for the social media searches were first issued in February for the Facebook profiles of activists Lacy MacAuley and Legba Carrefour, and for the Facebook page of DisruptJ20, the political organizing group that is moderated by Emmelia Talarico.
The page, now called “Resist This” is public, but the warrant seeks the names of people who planned to attend organizing events and those who “simply liked, followed, reacted to, commented on, or otherwise engaged” with the Facebook page, according to the ACLU.
About 6,000 Facebook users liked the page during the three-month period the warrant covers.
The U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia declined to comment on the motion to block the warrant.
Facebook does not object to the effort to stop the searches, according to court records filed Thursday in D.C. Superior Court. The company initially fought a judge’s order preventing Facebook from alerting its users to the search.
The legal wrangling over the so-called gag order took place behind closed doors in sealed court documents. The fight became public after Facebook went to the D.C. Court of Appeals and was allowed to make some details public to seek legal support for its cause from other business and organizations.
Prosecutors in D.C. backed off their request to keep Facebook quiet on the eve of a hearing at the appeals court. That allowed the company to alert the three users – MacAuley, Carrefour, and Talarico – to the warrants.
“This is part of a pattern of prosecutorial overreach in the repression of Inauguration Day protestors,” Carrefour said in a statement. The warrant, he said, would “strike a devastating blow to organizers working every day to make this city a better place.”
The ACLU filing asks the court either to get rid of the warrants outright or to appoint an independent “special master” to review the Facebook information requested and to turnover only data relevant to the criminal investigation.