HARRISBURG - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania announced today that it is representing two anonymous Twitter users who have criticized State Attorney General Tom Corbett on a social networking site. Corbett's office asked a grand jury to issue a subpoena earlier this month to Twitter demanding the identities of his critics.
"Any subpoena seeking to unmask the identity of anonymous critics raises the specter of political retaliation," said Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania and one of the lawyers representing the Twitter users. "It's a prized American right to criticize government officials, and to do so anonymously."
The subpoena seeks the subscriber information of two Twitter accounts, bfbarbie and CasablancaPA. The subpoena, which asks for records to be turned over by Friday, May 14, was issued by the attorney general's statewide investigating grand jury on May 6.
Twitter has advised the ACLU that they have not disclosed the account holders' identity, after receiving an objection from a user to the production of subscriber information. It is Twitter's policy to delay production in such cases to provide the user an opportunity to assert his or her rights.
A news account earlier today reported that the Attorney General's Office appeared to justify the subpoena by claiming that they needed to know the identities of the Twitter users because they suspected that it was a former legislative aide, Brett Cott, who had been convicted in the Bonusgate case and who was using the blog to "attack and malign the investigative and prosecutorial process, which resulted in his conviction." If true, they argued, this would justify imposing a harsher sentence. The ACLU questions whether seeking evidence in aid of a sentencing proceeding is an appropriate use of the grand jury system.
"The ACLU's concerns are that using the grand jury process in aid of seeking evidence for sentencing is improper and that using the court to unmask political critics is unconstitutional retaliation that violates the First Amendment," said Walczak.
The ACLU's lawyers have entered discussions with the AG's Office, asking them to withdraw the subpoenas. If the AG's Office refuses, the ACLU expects to file a motion to quash the subpoenas.
"For a candidate who is campaigning on his desire to protect the privacy of Pennsylvanians who are affected by the new health care bill, Attorney General Corbett shows a disturbing lack of interest in the privacy of critics who, in the best tradition of American democracy, have chosen to criticize his conduct of office anonymously," said Paul Alan Levy, a lawyer with the Public Citizen Litigation Group, which is working with the ACLU on the matter.
In addition to Walczak and Levy, also representing the anonymous Twitter users are Barbara Zemlock, a lawyer with Post Schell in Harrisburg, and Mark Sheppard, an attorney in the Philadelphia office of Montgomery McCracken, Walker and Rhoads, LLP.