Twitter has been ordered to turn over the deleted tweets of Occupy Wall Street protestor, Malcolm Harris, after he was charged with disorderly conduct during an Occupy protest. In a controversial move, presiding Judge Matthew Sciarrino Jr. demanded that Twitter turn over Harris’ records for the period of time during the incident because, Sciarrino believes, there are tweets that could be relevant to the case.
It all started last October, when Harris was protesting during Occupy Wall Street. Harris and 700 protesters were arrested for blocking the Brooklyn Bridge. Harris maintains that police told him that they were allowed to occupy the bridge, while police say that he knew that blocking the bridge was a violation of the law.
Judge Sciarrino believes that the proof that Harris knew he was committing a crime will be found within the three months worth of tweets on Harris’ Twitter account. He subpoenaed Twitter to turn over Harris’ tweets, with Twitter challenging the subpoena on the grounds that it aims to protect user privacy. Further, Twitter does not want to be held responsible for tweets sent out by its users. With that, Judge Sciarrino threatened to hold them in contempt of court, and demanded Twitter’s earning statements for the last two quarters so that he could levy a fine big enough to hurt them. That was Twitter’s breaking point, and their lawyer handed over the tweets, while stating that it was unfair that Twitter was forced to either wave its right to appeal, or be held in contempt.
In addition to three months of Harris’ tweets, Twitter was also forced to turn over all of his contacts, and the IP address from which the tweets were sent. The records will remain sealed until after the September 21st hearing that challenges Sciarrino’s decision to subpoena the tweets. Sciarrino said that he urges the appellate court to come to their decision based on the merits of the case. He added that he agrees that the issue is more important than the actual trial of Harris.
In a statement, the ACLU said, “While Twitter’s loss is disappointing, the bottom line is that Twitter should never have even had to get involved in this case at all-and it wouldn’t have, if the court hadn’t ruled that Harris did not have standing to protect his own constitutional rights. The court wrongly ruled that Harris forfeited those rights by using a third-party Internet service.”
While it seems that this is a lot of hoopla over a simple disorderly conduct charge (which carries a fine of $250 or 15 days in jail), what all sides of the case do seem to agree on is that there is more at stake than just the ruling of a disorderly conduct hearing. This could set precedent in a largely unexplored area of the law. What someone says online, and how it can be used against them, is an area that is relatively new, with Sciorrrino saying that what you say online, in a public forum, is similar to “yelling out a window”:
“If you post a tweet, just like if you scream it out the window, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. There is no proprietary interest in your tweets, which you have now gifted to the world. This is not the same as a private email, a private direct message, a private chat, or any of the other readily available ways to have a private conversation via the Internet that now exist.”
Harris’ camp says that forcing the records from Twitter is crossing the line, and infringes on the company’s ability to reassure users of their privacy. Others point out that what you verbally say is not typically recorded for others to go back and review later. Whichever way the case goes, it is a stark reminder to be careful what you do put out there on the Internet, it may just come back to bite you.