Judge Approves Pared-Back Search Warrant for Visitors to Trump-Protest Website

Image: Police help people who try to attend the inauguration parade but are blocked by demonstrators sitting down at 10th Street near Pennsylvania Avenue to prevent spectators from reaching one of the entrances to the parade route to protest Trump.
Police confront demonstrators near the route for President Donald Trump's inauguration in Washington on Jan. 20. Astrid Riecken / EPA file

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By Alex Johnson

A Washington, D.C., judge on Thursday approved the Justice Department's request for a scaled-back search warrant to harvest data from an anti-Trump website connected to Inauguration Day protests, but he said he would personally review the materials to protect "innocent users."

Chief Superior Court Judge Robert Morin said DreamHost, the web hosting company for DisruptJ20.org, must hand over data about some visitors to the site over the strenuous objections of the company and privacy advocates.

DisruptJ20 is a group of activists who organized protests during Donald Trump's inauguration as president in January. More than 200 people were arrested in Inauguration Day demonstrations that turned violent in Washington.

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The Justice Department's original warrant request sought information on DreamHost servers about all visitors to the DisruptJ20 website.

DreamHost and the nonprofit activist group Public Citizen strongly opposed the request, arguing that it would allow investigators to identify more than 1.3 million people who visited the site — the vast majority of whom had no connection to the Jan. 20 protests.

The requested data included server log files that would reveal IP addresses, which are internet locators that make it relatively easy to track otherwise anonymous web users.

In a supplemental filing on Tuesday, prosecutors asked the court to let them amend the request, acknowledging in court documents that they hadn't realized the scope of what they were asking for.

Morin on Thursday approved the handover only of records generated from October to Inauguration Day. He ordered prosecutors first to explain how they would exclude the data of what he called "innocent users" and then to justify why any of the records they obtain are relevant to the criminal investigation of the Jan. 20 violence.

Police confront demonstrators near the route for President Donald Trump's inauguration in Washington on Jan. 20. Astrid Riecken / EPA file

Raymond Aghaian, an attorney for DreamHost, called the ruling "a tremendous step in terms of further limiting what the government can do," but he told Reuters that the warrant is still too broad, because it could sweep in people who simply sent emails to DisruptJ20 addresses.

Public Citizen — which had sought to intervene in the case on behalf of five anonymous people who it said had no connection to the protests — said that the government had no legal justification for seeking information about anyone who visited the website.

"The court's actions to protect DreamHost visitors today are better than nothing, but it's still not enough to protect their First Amendment rights," said Paul Alan Levy, who argued Public Citizen's part of the case.

"This is a case about a website that is engaged in political speech, and the unnamed users should be alerted that their information may be eventually turned over to the government, so that they have a chance to protect their own rights," Levy said in a statement Thursday. "And a judge should pass on the relevance of speech before government agents see it, not afterward."