geert lovink on Thu, 14 Jun 2001 09:07:02 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] Govt Drops Court Order as IMC Prepares Legal Challenge

From: "Sheri Herndon" <>
Sent: Thursday, June 14, 2001 4:42 PM
Subject: Govt Drops Court Order as IMC Prepares Legal Challenge

Seattle Independent Media Center
1415 Third Avenue
Seattle, WA  98101


JUNE 14, 2001

CONTACT: Jonathan Lawson, 206.709.0558


Yesterday, in a case involving internet press freedom, the US Government
withdrew a previously-issued court order directing the Independent Media
Center in Seattle to hand over computer server logs. The April 21 order
instructed the IMC, a not-for-profit internet-based news organization, to
hand over logs and other records pertaining to the IMC's coverage of
anti-globalization protests in Quebec City. The government's retreat
represents a victory for the IMC, where volunteers and a national legal team
had been preparing to challenge the order in court.

The IMC is undecided about further legal action. IMC counsel Nancy Chang of
the Center for Constitutional Rights comments: "Although the court order has
been withdrawn, the IMC's concerns over the government's ability to use
internet technology for surveillance of political activists continue to

At the time of the order's issuance, FBI and Secret Service agents claimed
that they needed the server logs to assist in an investigation related to
sensitive documents which had been stolen from Canadian police, then posted
to the IMC website by an anonymous journalist. The agents also falsely
claimed that posted documents contained details of George Bush's travel
itinerary. Bush was at the time attending the Summit of the Americas in
Quebec City.

IMC volunteers learned several weeks ago that police in Quebec identified
and arrested three suspects in the stolen documents case, without any
information provided by the IMC. Still, the U.S. government neither amended
nor withdrew its order against the IMC until yesterday, instead allowing the
order to continue absorbing the volunteer organization's personnel and legal
resources. The timing of the original order, issued while mass protests were
still underway in Quebec City, suggests that the government intended to
produce a chilling effect among IMC journalists covering those protests - a
suggestion then strengthened by the government's failure to withdraw its
order, even weeks after the Canadian arrests.

The IMC did not comply with the order, which would have involved handing
over the individual internet protocol (IP) addresses of over 1.25 million
journalists, readers and technical volunteers who accessed the IMC website
on April 20 and 21, a much broader sweep than the stated focus of the
government's investigation. According to IMC counsel Lee Tien of the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, "This kind of fishing expedition is another
in a long line of overbroad and onerous attempts to chill political speech
and activism. Back in 1956, Alabama tried to force the NAACP to give up its
membership lists -- but the Supreme Court stopped them. This order to IMC,
even without the 'gag,' is a threat to free speech, free association, and

The case drew immediate interest from some of the nation's top first
amendment advocacy organizations. With help from the Electronic Frontier
Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Center for
Constitutional Rights and others, the IMC prepared to challenge the invasive
order in court. However, on the eve of the IMC's planned court filing, the
government suddenly withdrew the order. IMC volunteers speculate that
government lawyers realized the likelihood that the order would be struck
down on constitutional grounds, and decided to retreat rather than face a
court defeat.

Tien comments, "The government owes the IMC, its many users, and the general
public an explanation. Maybe that will prevent this sort of thing from
happening again." With the court order withdrawn, the IMC is denied the
immediate opportunity to have the courts rule on several serious
constitutional rights concerns, including:

?  Under US law, freedom of speech guarantees the right to speak
anonymously. This principle has been established repeatedly in the federal
courts, and has been found recently to apply to internet speech as well. On
April 19, District Judge Thomas Zilly ruled in Seattle that internet firm could not compel an internet chat room host to identify
anonymous users who had criticized the firm online.

?  Freedom of association, particularly anonymous association, is afforded
very strong protections under the law. Anonymity in public discourse has
been a central theme in the history of American democracy; even the
Federalist Papers were published under fictitious names. On the internet,
anonymity is particularly important because it enables individuals to
disguise their race, gender, class or other indicators which might lead to
their marginalization in public space.

?  Journalists hold a qualified privilege from compelled disclosure of
sources and other work product. The Constitution requires this protection
because court-compelled disclosure of newsgathering materials poses a
serious threat to the vitality of the newsgathering process and a free
press. The government's order falsely described the IMC as an internet
service provider, rather than as a news organization. Independent
journalists posting stories or photographs to IMC websites are entitled to
the same protections as any other member of the news media.

The IMC was launched in Fall 1999 to provide immediate, authentic,
grassroots coverage of protests against the WTO. Just a year and a half
later, the IMC network has reached around the world, with dozens of sites
scattered across six continents. Each IMC's news coverage centers upon its
open-publishing newswire, an innovative and democratizing system allowing
anyone with access to an internet connection to become a journalist. Open
publishing enables the IMC to present local and national issues from diverse
perspectives, independent of many filters and biases affecting mainstream
media coverage.

The IMC's mission statement reads: "The Independent Media Center is a
grassroots organization committed to using media production and distribution
as tools promoting social and economic justice. It is our goal to further
the self-determination of people under-represented in media production and
content, and to illuminate and analyze local and global issues that impact
ecosystems, communities and individuals. We seek to generate alternatives to
the biases inherent in the corporate media controlled by profit, and to
identify and create positive models for a sustainable and equitable


Jonathan Lawson, volunteer
Seattle Independent Media Center

Jason Reep, volunteer
Seattle Independent Media Center

David Burman, Attorney for the Seattle IMC
Perkins Coie LLP
1201 Third Ave. Ste. 4800
Seattle, WA 98101-3099

Lee Tien, Senior Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation
454 Shotwell Street
San Francisco, CA  94110

Nancy Chang, Senior Litigation Attorney
Center for Constitutional Rights
666 Broadway, 7th Floor
New York, NY 10012

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