Witold Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania released the following statement on Friday:
While we are pleased that the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office has withdrawn the subpoena to Twitter for identity information on our clients, Twitter account holders bf barbie and CasablancaPA, the ACLU maintains grave concerns about the AG’s handling of this affair.
The AG’s Office has now confirmed that the information requested by the grand jury subpoena was to be used in connection with today’s sentencing of “Bonusgate” defendant Brett Cott. Two troubling conclusions flow from this admission.
First, this subpoena to Twitter was a serious abuse of the grand jury process. Under Pennsylvania law, investigating grand juries “have the power to inquire into offenses against the criminal laws of the Commonwealth.” See, 45 P.S. § 4548. Obviously, gathering evidence for sentencing is beyond the scope of that authority. More troubling is the contention by the Attorney General’s Office lawyers that they “do this all the time” and that there was nothing wrong with what they did. The ACLU calls on the attorney general to state publicly that his office will immediately stop misusing the grand jury to gather evidence beyond the scope of its statutory authority.
Second, the willingness to use legal process to go on a fishing expedition that would unmask the identities of political critics in order simply to support an argument for extending a criminal defendant’s sentence shows a flagrant disregard for the First Amendment. The fact that tweets have been issued from the two accounts since Mr. Cott was taken into custody – meaning they aren’t Cott -- demonstrates that innocent people’s rights were jeopardized by the attorney general’s action. Had these people not had the fortitude to stand up to the subpoenas their identities might have been unnecessarily exposed.
The ACLU hopes that this incident will cause the Attorney General’s Office to change its practices and desist from similar grand jury abuses in the future. We also hope that the people of Pennsylvania will now have learned that criticizing one’s government officials is a valued constitutional right, that the right can be pursued anonymously, and that the government cannot unmask speaker’s identities without meeting a compelling justification and without following proper legal process, including notice and an opportunity to object. It is now clear that the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General neither followed lawful process nor had sufficient cause to seek the identities of the Twitter users.
Finally, the ACLU applauds Twitter for respecting the privacy rights of its account holders and wishes to thank volunteer lawyers Barbara Zemlock, with the firm Post Schell in Harrisburg , and Mark Sheppard, an attorney in the Philadelphia office of Montgomery McCracken, Walker and Rhoads, LLP.