The Irony of the Tweet: Twitter Sues DHS to Protect Trump Critics

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Twitter sued the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday to protect the anonymity of an inside critic of the Trump administration whose identity Customs and Border Protection is seeking by subpoena.

Twitter calls the subpoena an abuse of governmental power that appears motivated by a desire to suppress free speech.

“Compelled disclosure of the identities of Twitter users who have engaged in pseudonymous speech would chill their exercise of the constitutionally protected right to speak anonymously,” Twitter says in its 25-page lawsuit.

@ALT_uscis is one of several anonymous Twitter accounts offering “alternative” ideas and information about federal agencies under the Trump administration. USCIS is an acronym for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, one of several agencies under the Homeland Security umbrella.

The alternative agency accounts emerged in late January after the Twitter account for Badlands National Park made headlines by “going rogue” and tweeting about the validity of climate change, in contrast to views expressed by President Donald Trump.

Other alternative agency Twitter handles include @alt_labor, @RogueEPAstaff and @blm_alt.

The @ALT_uscis account has tweeted thousands of comments critical of U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, and at least one person associated with account claims to be an employee of the federal agency.

“Preserving anonymity appears to be especially important for users of these alternative agency accounts who are current federal employees, given the risk that such users could face retaliation, sanctions, or other negative repercussions from their federal employer if they were identified as the source of criticism of their agency,” Twitter’s complaint states.

The complaint cites tweets from early March criticizing the federal immigration agency for turning down opportunities to streamline the department’s intake process and reduce costs and processing time.

“USCIS used on average 900 tons of paper per year, or 12,000 trees. Wonder if there was a way in the future to eliminate paper forms,” the account holder tweeted sarcastically on March 12.

Twitter says the subpoena, issued on March 14, exceeds the agency’s authority and violates the First Amendment.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is authorized to compel production of records only relating to imports of merchandise, and has not shown that any offense has been committed by the entity behind @ALT_uscis, according to Twitter.

Given the compelling free-speech interests at stake, Twitter says, U.S. Customs must satisfy “stringent standards” before it can force the social media network to turn over records revealing the identity of an agency critic.

Customs would need to prove that a criminal or civil offense was committed and that forcing it to unmask the user’s identity is the “least restrictive way” to investigate the alleged offense, according to the lawsuit.

Twitter is represented by Mark Flanagan with Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr in Palo Alto. It wants the subpoena quashed, plus costs of suit and attorney’s fees.

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment after business hours Thursday.

In tweets sent out Thursday, @ALT_uscis gloated about the attention it has received after the first news reports of the lawsuit.

“33,000 followers added in under an hour. Where have you been since we started!!! #NoBanNoWall,” @ALT_uscis tweeted on Thursday.

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