Newspapers with online versions and newsblogs everywhere take note:
If the U.S. attorney doesn’t like what commenters say on your site, you may be served with a subpoena demanding their personal information. Even if no crime has been indicated or committed in those comments.
So it is at the Las Vegas Review Journal, which has received a demand for all records related to recent commenter postings, including “full name, date of birth, physical address, gender, ZIP code, password prompts, security questions, telephone numbers and other identifiers … the IP address”.
The comments were posted on this op-ed about an ongoing federal tax evasion trial. The defendant, Las Vegas resident Robert Kahre, is accused of tax fraud for paying people in U.S. minted gold and silver coins based on their precious metal value but using their face value for tax purposes (which is many times less).
As you will see if you scan them, the comments – about 100 of them - fall on various points on the Sane and Nutty graphs, per usual with these kinds of things. Nothing terribly surprising or disturbing in any of them.
Here’s what Thomas Mitchell, editor at the LVRJ, is saying:
My first instinct is to fight the subpoena tooth and nail. After all, John Peter Zenger was just the printer who published anonymous essays critical of the colonial governor. His jury nullified the existing law and freed him.
On the other hand, if someone were to confess to a real and specific crime on our Web site, I’d give him up at the drop of a hat.
Bottom line: We could fight the federal subpoena, at considerable expense, and lose. Our attorneys are now trying to see if we can limit the scope of the information sought.
What the prosecutors don’t appear to understand is that we don’t have most of what they are seeking. We don’t require registration. A person could use a fictitious name and e-mail address, and most do. We have no addresses or phone numbers.
To add prior restraint to the chilling effect of the sweeping subpoena, we were warned: “You have no obligation of secrecy concerning this subpoena; however, any such disclosure could obstruct and impede an ongoing criminal investigation. …”
I wonder if Thomas Jefferson could have been subpoenaed when he wrote from Paris in 1787: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
The Sedition Act wasn’t passed until 12 years later. I thought it had since been repealed.
Update: The LVRJ is fighting the subpoena. And the ACLU has posted a message asking commenters if they would like free representation. See here. (Thanks to SinCityXtreme for sending the head’s up and link.)
Also, there are now 173 comments on the story.