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Justice Department Backtracks on Collecting Data of Visitors to an Anti-Trump Website

Aug 23, 2017

(WASHINGTON) — The Justice Department amended a request for information about an anti-Trump website that prosecutors allege was behind destructive Inauguration Day protests, attempting to address concerns that the records demand was sweeping and unconstitutional.

Yet prosecutors also defended as lawful a warrant they obtained for information about the site. They said in a court filing Monday that the information they sought was part of a criminal investigation into the "premeditated riot" that accompanied the Jan. 20 inauguration of Donald Trump as president. And they rejected allegations that they were trampling on free speech protections, saying they were focused on criminal behavior surrounding the protests.

"The government values and respects the First Amendment right of all Americans to participate in peaceful political protests and to read protected political expression online," the court filing states. "This warrant has nothing to do with that right. The warrant is focused on evidence of the planning, coordination and participation in a criminal act— that is, a premeditated riot."

Even so, the Justice Department agreed to rewrite parts of their information request to more clearly spell out what they were seeking and to address constitutional concerns from the Internet company that hosted the site and from other privacy advocates.

Read more: The Justice Department Demanded a Tech Firm Hand Over Anti-Trump User Data. The Company Said No

In their scaled back request for information, prosecutors stressed they were targeting only those who used the site to plot violence and not political dissidents who may have casually visited it. They said any information produced by the company that falls outside the scope of the warrant would be set aside, placed under seal and made unavailable to the government without a further court order.

A hearing is set for Thursday in D.C. Superior Court.

At issue is disruptj20.org, a website prosecutors say was used for the planning and development of disruptive protests. More than 200 people were charged after protesters broke windows and set fire to a limousine on Inauguration Day. Prosecutors obtained a search warrant in July ordering the company that hosted the website, DreamHost, to turn over information about use of the site.

The company has challenged the warrant as unconstitutionally broad, saying the government's request effectively sought information about 1.3 million visitors to the site. In a blog post, the California-based company said in a blog post that that "information could be used to identify any individuals who used this site to exercise and express political speech protected under the Constitution's First Amendment."

The Justice Department maintained in its court filing that it has "no interest in records relating to the 1.3 million IP addresses that are mentioned in DreamHost's numerous press releases and opposition brief."

Prosecutors presented a modified request that they hoped would quell the company's concerns.

The new request, they say, more clearly spells out the type of information they are looking to to seize during the investigation and also makes clear that the government will place under seal with the court any evidence that it does not take possession of.

"Such modifications should amply address the First Amendment/Fourth Amendment reasonableness concerns raised by DreamHost," prosecutors wrote in their filing.

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