Americans are used to having the freedom to criticize the government or its officials. There's no worry they'll be in trouble for their ideas. But what about online comments? One government official says he needs to know who is behind harsh criticism of him on Twitter.

Twitter Gets a Subpoena

Executives at the social networking site Twitter were surprised by a grand jury subpoena from the Pennsylvania Attorney General. Twitter refused to turn over the requested information.

A subpoena is an official court document requiring you appear or produce something at a certain time, date and place. A records subpoena asks for records or documents. A deposition subpoena asks you to give sworn testimony in question-and-answer format known as a deposition.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett demanded Twitter reveal the identities of those using certain screen names. Both posted harsh criticisms of Corbett and of his office's political corruption investigation, Bonusgate.

First Amendment Concerns

The subpoena launched outrage from free speech and electronic privacy advocates. The ACLU of Pennsylvania plans to challenge the subpoena in court.

Corbett's upcoming election opponent, Dan Onorato, called the subpoena "outrageous" and "unbelievable." ACLU attorney Witold Walczak says the subpoena poses serious First Amendment concerns. In America, Walczak says, we have a prized history of being able to make anonymous criticism of government.

However, limits on free speech are possible when rationally related to a legitimate public interest. For example, the government can ban speech likely to incite a riot or harm public health and safety. That's why you can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater.

You can also be arrested for making disruptive or threatening statements to the police or crime witnesses. Finally, telling lies under oath in a trial or deposition isn't protected speech.

Courts Can Force Web Sites to Reveal Your Identity

An Illinois court recently addressed an online poster's privacy rights in of Maxon v. Ottawa Publishing Co. The case involved a poster's comments to a newspaper blog. Justice Holdridge noted that suggesting bribery wasn't an opinion, but could be seen as a statement of fact. The court decided the newspaper had to reveal the blogger identities.

The court noted that people who speak via the internet don't get a higher degree of protection from defamation claims than those using other mediums.

A key difference is the Twitter case involves anonymous political speech, meaning comments about a public official. In 1999, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled anonymous political speech is protected by the First Amendment.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Under what circumstances can I get in trouble for my speech?
  • Can other web sites reveal my identity to those who ask?
  • Which state courts have authority when a case involves the internet?

Tagged as: Civil Rights, twitter name, subpoena, civil rights lawyer