Guest Opinion: Twitter reaffirms right to free speech
Twitter’s most bellicose presidential user often tweets taunts and accusations, but when someone else does it, they’re out of line. A “rogue” government account that criticizes President Donald Trump’s policies anonymously was in danger last week of being unmasked after the Department of Homeland Security issued a summons demanding the social media company turn over its users’ identities. The government withdrew the demand a day after Twitter sued.
It was obvious from the start that the government had no legal grounds to make the demand. Even one top Trump aide with his own Twitter scandal, Dan Scavino, argues that federal employees have a right to free speech on their own time, using their own accounts and equipment.
Since Trump’s inauguration, dozens of Twitter accounts have sprung up claiming to be run by current and former federal employees of different agencies, including @alt — labor and @RogueEPAstaff. Users posting to @ALT — uscis, the account targeted by the DHS summons, have critiqued the government’s immigration policies and revealed issues within the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office.
DHS tried to legally justify the summons by invoking an obscure federal law that allows it to obtain documents related to importations of merchandise. But as Twitter’s lawyers pointed out in their suit, this case “plainly has nothing whatsoever to do with the importation of merchandise.”
Rather, the cloudy legal grounds were part of the administration’s gusto for quieting dissent. It’s what Trump did when he ordered the National Park Service to temporarily stop tweeting after it posted photos of crowds at his inauguration, effectively confirming weak attendance.
Social media companies do have a responsibility to forgo privacy concerns when national security is at risk, say, when terrorists communicate via online accounts. When the FBI demanded last year that Apple unlock the iPhone used by one San Bernardino terrorist, Apple had an unmet obligation to cooperate. But some grumbling desk workers and their 140-character pent-up frustrations do not threaten America — just the president’s sensitivities.
Besides, the federal employees supposedly running the @ALT — uscis account have every right to engage in this form of political activity. Just ask Scavino, the president’s social media director, who tweeted on April 1 encouraging the “#TrumpTrain” to oust a GOP member who opposed the Republican health care bill.
From the left and right, Scavino was accused of violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits government employees from using taxpayer facilities, equipment or work time to engage in political activity. But as the White House was quick to point out in Scavino’s defense, the law also notes that employees are free to do as they please outside the office.
The Trump administration’s demand that Twitter expose and endanger its critics was an unconstitutional infringement on free speech. A summons as outrageous as that deserved its quick demise.