Twitter Inc. has to turn over information about an Occupy Wall Street protester’s posts or face a fine, a judge ruled, giving the company three days to show it isn’t in contempt of court.
New York State Supreme Court Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino Jr. in Manhattan today said Twitter must produce the information by Sept. 14 or provide its earnings statements from the last two quarters so he can decide on a fine. The judge had asked Twitter to show why it wasn’t in contempt of court after refusing to produce information about Twitter posts by protester Malcolm Harris in response to a subpoena from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.
“I can’t put Twitter or the little blue bird in jail, so the only way to punish is monetarily,” Sciarrino said.
Sciarrino ruled June 30 that Twitter must turn over Twitter’s posts from Sept. 15 to Dec. 30 and user information linked to the “@destructuremal” account of Harris, who was arrested on Oct. 1 with about 700 protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge, denying the company’s request to quash the subpoena. Twitter then asked for a stay that would block enforcement of the order while it appealed Sciarrino’s decision. That request was denied Sept. 7, according to court records.
Twitter “is interested in having a fair hearing on this issue, it’s a novel issue,” the company’s lawyer Terryl L. Brown told Sciarrino, saying it wanted more time to appeal his June 30 ruling. Sciarrino said his hearing was a fair one, and the company has already had 73 days to comply with his order.
Twitter’s case will determine whether it faces the burden of responding to subpoenas for its users, the San Francisco-based company has said. The outcome is significant throughout the U.S. as law enforcement becomes more aggressive in seeking information about what people do and say on the Internet, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a May 31 court filing.
The company has been in “non-compliance” with the court’s order already and it and Harris’ “two-front attack” on the judge’s orders risk delaying the trial in Harris’ case, currently scheduled for Dec. 12, lawyers for Vance said in court papers.
Twitter said in its appeal that Sciarrino’s decision was wrong in finding that Harris himself couldn’t quash the motion and that the order for his tweets complied with state and federal law.
Erin Duggan, a spokeswoman for Vance, declined to comment.
Twitter provides real-time messaging and allows users to make posts that are broadcast to people who sign up to follow them. The company contends that users, not the company, have the right to fight requests for their personal information.
“It’s pretty outrageous that the D.A.’s office wants to prohibit Twitter from exercising its right to appeal,” said Martin Stolar, a lawyer with the National Lawyers Guild who represents Harris, after the hearing. Harris was denied his own motion to quash Vance’s subpoena in April. Twitter had intervened, asking Sciarrino to reverse that ruling, which had also found that Twitter, not Harris, was responsible for producing the tweets.
The information sought covers about 3 1/2 months, including Harris’s arrest date. Vance’s office said it only seeks subscriber information linking Harris to the account at issue, and tweets that were already publicly disseminated. Twitter has said that if the information was public, Vance’s office wouldn’t have to subpoena it.
Harris said in court papers that the police engaged in misconduct at the time of the arrests by escorting them onto the bridge and misleading them to believe that crossing the bridge was authorized.
“The tweets are thought to contain admissions that Harris’s violation of New York Law was intentional and/or would undermine” his potential trial defense, lawyers for Vance wrote in court papers.
The ACLU had said Harris should be able to argue against the subpoena because his First Amendment right to free speech and his Fourth Amendment right to privacy are implicated.
Twitter said that if the district attorney can subpoena it for user information, the company would be “put in the untenable position of either providing user communications and account information in response to all subpoenas or attempting to vindicate its users’ rights by moving to quash these subpoenas itself.”
The case is People of the State of New York v. Harris, 11-80152, Supreme Court of the State of New York (Manhattan).