Sandwiched between the revulsion that is Charlottesville on Saturday and the immoral ravings of Donald Trump on Monday and Tuesday was a little-noted revelation that should concern every nonprofit concerned with free speech and the right to protect their donors and volunteers from public exposure.

On Monday the web hosting company DreamHost, revealed its ongoing legal battle with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). At issue: whether the company can be compelled to turn over identifying information on visitors to a website (disruptj20.org) used to organize protests during President Trump’s inauguration in January. ( See article in the New York Times.)

The company argues that turning over the information requested by the government would chill free association and the right of free speech afforded by the Constitution. Civil liberties and human rights lawyers also argue that caving into the government’s demand also constitutes a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against illegal search and seizure.

The Agitator has warned time and time — and time and time and time again — that government and its armies of bureaucrats and regulators are enemies of vigorous debate and protest and the organizations that advocate for change. Period.

In the 1950’s the State of Alabama went after the membership and contributors lists of the NAACP. The U.S. Supreme court blocked that attempt. In the 1960’s Democratic President Lyndon Johnson attempted to revoke the tax-exempt status of the Sierra Club because they opposed his efforts to flood the Grand Canyon. He lost and membership in the Sierra Club shot up. And the same fate awaited attempts by Republican President Richard Nixon to silence dissent with his infamous “Enemies List”. On and on in states and in Washington, D.C..

Sometimes it’s liberal organizations that are targeted; sometimes conservatives. The urge of political leaders to mute dissent is eternally bipartisan.

This time around it’s the Trump Administration attempting to prosecute political opponents – who access the web for information.

  • In February, the Justice Department handed down charges against nearly 200 protesters arrested on Inauguration Day.
  • In March, US Customs and Border Protection sought records from Twitter to identify people behind an account created to share the views of civil servants who disagree with the president’s policies. Twitter sued to block the effort and the government dropped the case.
  • In May, the Justice Department put a woman on trial for laughing during Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Senate confirmation hearings. She was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to a year in prison. Last month a judge ordered a new trial.

The current request from the DOJ demands that DreamHost hand over 1.3 million visitor IP addresses — in addition to contact information, email content, and photos of thousands of people — in an effort to determine who simply visited the website

This is information that can be used to identify any individuals who used this site to exercise and express political speech protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment.

If you’re involved with an advocacy organization that opposes the policies of the Trump Administration the alarm bells should be ringing.

Are you prepared for the day the government comes knocking with a demand for the list of visitors to your website or a copy of your donor database?

Roger

 

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