- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Department of Homeland Security sought to compel Twitter to reveal the identity of the person behind an account that was among the dozens of so-called “rogue” handles created to criticize the Trump administration, the social media company alleged in a lawsuit filed Thursday.

Twitter filed the lawsuit against DHS and federal government employees as a way to prevent them from unmasking the identity of the anonymous account user, arguing that the government did not have the authority to make such a request and that doing so is violation of the First Amendment.

Twitter’s lawsuit states a special agent within Customs and Border Protection sent the social media company an administrative summons on March 13 seeking information about Twitter account @ALT_USCIS, which purports to be run by employees of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. The summons sought information that would reveal the identity of the account holder, including account login information, phone numbers and mailing addressed associated with it, and I.P. addresses.

The @ALT_USCIS is among dozens of rogue government accounts that have sprouted up since President Trump was sworn into office — each seeking to fuel rebellion against the president’s policies and actions.

This account, created shortly after the announcement of Mr. Trump’s original executive order on travel and refugees, has been critical of the administration’s immigration policies as well as purported mismanagement and inefficiencies in the Citizenship and Immigration Services agency.

The lawsuit states that the summons was sent by Adam Hoffman, a special agent in CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility.

“Defendant Hoffman stated vaguely that he is conducting an investigation. But he did not identify any law or laws that he believed had been broken or point to any evidence substantiating any such belief — such as particular Tweets that he believes were unlawful,” states the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in California.

Twitter questions whether CBP had the legal authority to request the information that was being sought, noting that CBP in its initial request invoked a legal statute that authorizes the agency to compel production of records related to the importation of merchandise.

“But CBP’s investigation of the @ALT_USCIS account plainly has nothing whatsoever to do with the importation of merchandise into the United States,” the lawsuit states.

The company argues that the user of the account, which no has upwards of 50,000 followers, has a right to anonymous speech.

“In these circumstances, Defendants may not compel Twitter to disclose information regarding the real identities of these users without first demonstrating that some criminal or civil offense has been committed, that unmasking the users’ identity is the least restrictive means for investigating that offense, that the demand for this information is not motivated by a desire to suppress free speech, and that the interests of pursuing that investigation outweigh the important First Amendment rights of Twitter and its users,” the lawsuit states.

“But Defendants have not come close to making any of those showings,” it concludes.

A DHS spokeswoman said the department declines to comment on the pending litigation.

Twitter’s lawsuit asks the court to issue an order declaring that the CBP summons is unenforceable and that the social media company has no obligation to comply with it. 

The American Civil Liberties Union has said it is representing the anonymous Twitter user.

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