The Department of Justice has issued a subpoena ordering libertarian website Reason.com to hand over information about their anonymous commenters, accusing those users of “threatening” a federal judge. (RELATED: Former CBS Reporter Sues Justice Department For Illegal Surveillance)
The grand jury subpeona, issued by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, orders Reason to turn over the names, IP addresses, physical addresses, emails, billing information and telephone numbers of six anonymous commenters. The government’s request also asks Reason to “voluntarily refrain” from disclosing the existence of the grand jury investigation.
The offending comments are from a Nick Gillespie article on the sentencing of Ross Ulbricht, founder of the online black market website Silk Road, to life in prison. A number of the supportive commentators vented their anger at sentencing Judge Katherine Forrest, with some of the more colorful commentators wishing she’d meet an unfortunate demise by way of woodchipper.
Private attorney Ken White, proprietor of the popular legal blog Popehat, first reported on the charges. White notes that the “threats” contained in the comments are almost certainly hyperbolic, and don’t amount to actually prosecutable threats.
I submit that they are very clearly not true threats — that this is not even a close call… The “threats” do not specify who is going to use violence, or when. They do not offer a plan, other than juvenile mouth-breathing about “wood chippers” and revolutionary firing squads. They do not contain any indication that any of the mouthy commenters has the ability to carry out a threat. [Emphasis in the original]
Some of the comments don’t appear to be threats in any way, shape, or form. “There’s a special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman,” reads one subpeonaed comment in its entirety. That’s pretty clearly a common saying with no violent intent behind it (“If that’s a threat, then so is ‘go to Hell,'” notes White).
George Mason Law Professor and libertarian Volokh Conspiracy blogger Ilya Somin agrees. “…[E]ven if this practice is legally permissible, it is still ill-advised,” he writes. “In addition to wasting substantial resources that could better be devoted to investigating real crimes, it is unlikely that this power will be used in an even-handed way.” (RELATED: USA Today Journalist: Obama Presidency Most ‘Dangerous’ To Press In History)
Reason has not yet responded to the grand jury investigation publicly, except for a short notice posted by Gillespie asking commentators not to discuss the Popehat article. The Daily Caller has reached out for comment, and this article will be updated if a response is forthcoming.