A Seattle journalists collective that was the target of an FBI probe declared victory this week after the U.S. government abandoned plans to obtain logs from the group’s Web server. Attorneys for the Independent Media Center said Thursday that the government’s abrupt decision not to pursue the request “represents a victory” for the left-leaning collective, which had recruited a team of public-interest lawyers and vowed to fight in federal district court.
WASHINGTON — A Seattle journalists collective that was the target of an FBI probe declared victory this week after the U.S. government abandoned plans to obtain logs from the group’s Web server.
Attorneys for the Independent Media Center said Thursday that the government’s abrupt decision not to pursue the request “represents a victory” for the left-leaning collective, which had recruited a team of public-interest lawyers and vowed to fight in federal district court.
While IMC representatives were never charged with a crime, the FBI had hoped to peruse the collective’s Web logs to learn who had posted sensitive documents allegedly stolen from a police car in Quebec City during April’s anti-free-trade protests.
But the U.S. Attorney’s office dropped the request after learning that Canadian police had completed their investigation and arrested, according to one source, three suspects in the case.
Anything that was done in the U.S., specifically in Seattle, concerning this case was done at the request of Canadian authorities,” says Robbie Burroughs, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s field office. “We never had an investigation here and we were never investigating the company for violating U.S. laws. We were assisting the Canadian authorities in a case they had open.”
In April, FBI agents visited the Seattle IMC newsroom and handed editors a court order that requested “all user connection logs” for April 20 and 21. It also instructed members of the collective to stay mum about the order’s existence, an unusual requirement that led to an immediate series of leaks on IMC websites, reports in local newspapers within a few days, and the eventual involvement of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
“We were going to file a motion to quash,” says Nancy Chang, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City. “The government agreed to a vacation of the order prior to our filing.”
It’s not uncommon for law enforcement to deliver an order to an Internet provider or telephone company requesting certain information that it restricts the company from discussing. But the IMC’s attorneys liken this incident to federal agents visiting, for example, the newsroom of The New York Times, and barring the paper from publishing any details of the visit.
Chang also said that an order requesting logs of visitors would violate the First Amendment right of association by providing “the FBI with a virtual who’s who of the people associated with the IMC and their political views.”
A spokesman from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Seattle said he was not familiar with the case.
The IMC is a collective that includes hundreds of loosely affiliated journalists who produce audio, video and print reports. It began with the 1999 World Trade Organization summit in Seattle, and then spread to other cities and other political events.
According to the IMC’s own description, it’s “a grassroots organization committed to using media production and distribution as a tool for promoting social and economic justice.”
It’s not the first time the group has run into trouble with the police. IMC reporters generally are sympathetic to the activists they write about, and some participate in the demonstrations they cover. A standard line from IMC organizers during orientation sessions is: “If you do a protest, take off your press pass first.”
Lee Tien, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the IMC — represented also by the Perkins Coie law firm — had not yet decided whether to sue the feds for what amounts to harassment. Tien pointed out that the allegations of lawbreaking involved only Canadian law, not that of the U.S.
“There’s no decision made about what to do,” Tien said. “Certainly there are possibilities of some kind of an action.”
Seattle Independent Media Center
1415 Third Avenue
Seattle, WA 98101
GOVERNMENT DROPS COURT ORDER AS IMC PREPARES LEGAL CHALLENGE
JUNE 14, 2001
CONTACT: Jonathan Lawson, 206.709.0558
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
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 linger.”
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 privacy.”
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:
Ã¢â€šÂ¬ 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 2TheMart.com could not compel an internet chat room host to identify anonymous users who had criticized the firm online.
Ã¢â€šÂ¬ 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.
Ã¢â€šÂ¬ 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 society.”
REFERENCES: www.indymedia.org and www.indymedia.org/fbi
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
Author: Declan McCullagh
News Service: Wired News/Politechbot