To celebrate inaugural or not? Trump critics are divided (copy) (copy)

In this file photo from December 2017, construction continues for the inauguration and swearing-in ceremonies for President-elect Donald Trump on the Capitol steps in Washington. 

The Associated Press

Regardless of whether your politics hew to the right or to the left, here's something we probably can agree on: It's troubling when the government wants to know about all the websites you visit.

So you might be interested in a legal hearing that's scheduled for today in a Washington, D.C. courtroom. 

At issue is a search warrant from the U.S. Department of Justice that seeks the visitor logs and IP addresses of anyone who has visited the website DisruptJ20.org, in addition to any email addresses, user logs and photos collected by the website. The search warrant has been issued to DreamHost, a Los Angeles web host and domain-name registrar; the company is not politically connected to DisruptJ20.org, but did provide paid services for the organization.

As you might be able to guess from its name, DisruptJ20 is a website that opposes President Donald Trump. The site helped organize some of the protests that occurred on the day Trump was inaugurated. (So, the name for the website is meant to stand for "Disrupt Jan. 20.") According to a recent online article in The Atlantic, the site also has included general information about civil disobedience and political protests. 

Some of the Jan. 20 protests in the Washington area turned violent, and the federal government has charged more than 200 people with felony rioting or destruction of property. Government prosecutors allege that some of those defendants were connected in some way to the DisruptJ20 organization. So that's why the government is asking DreamHost to turn over the information, which includes 1.3 million IP addresses.

The company thus far has refused to comply with the warrant, arguing that the warrant represents "investigatory overreach and a clear abuse of government authority."

And that it probably does. Legal experts this week noted that one likely result of the court hearing could well be a judicial order telling the Department of Justice to dramatically narrow the terms of its warrant. As it stands, it certainly seems like a fishing exhibition (a "digital dragnet," in the words of one expert) on the part of prosecutors.

This is particularly chilling in that the type of activities promoted by DisruptJ20 are those explicitly covered by the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly. In this case, of course, the website seeks to unite Trump opponents. But the next time, the target could be anybody who's opposing any kind of government action.

And if that's not worrisome enough, legal experts consulted by The Atlantic said it wasn't clear whether the government's warrant to DreamHost violates the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

In the past, the article noted, the government has successfully seized visitor logs for other websites. But the experts quoted by The Atlantic said they were unaware of any law that would apply in a case like this, in which the government is seeking an astonishingly broad array of records without any attempt to narrow its request.

A legal expert quoted by The Washington Post put the matter well: "(I)s the collective set of records concerning a website itself so extensive that it goes beyond what the Fourth Amendment allows? ... I don't know of any case law on this."

This case could wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which consistently has supported the First Amendment. Regardless of your political beliefs, this is a case worth watching. (mm)

 

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