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NY protester's tweets at heart of clash on privacy

By Jennifer Peltz

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Feb. 23 2012 4:39 p.m. MST

An Occupy Wall Street protester and prosecutors are tussling over his tweets, a clash that's raising legal issues of privacy in an age of living online.

The contest has sounded alarms among electronic privacy advocates, who see ominous overreaching in the Manhattan prosecutor's efforts to subpoena tweets sent by a demonstrator facing a disorderly conduct charge. The protester's lawyer is trying to block the subpoena, calling it an infringement on constitutional rights and "an unwarranted invasion of privacy."

But the Manhattan district attorney's office says it's fair game to go after messages protester Malcolm Harris sent publicly for weeks before and months after his arrest. The messages might contradict Harris' defense that he thought protesters had police permission to march in the street on the Brooklyn Bridge on Oct. 1, prosecutors said in a court filing Wednesday.

"He has no proprietary or privacy interest in tweets that he broadcast to every person with access to the Internet," Assistant District Attorney Lee Langston wrote.

A judge has yet to rule on the dispute, which is underscoring authorities' growing interest in mining social media during investigations. The DA's office won't say whether it is pursuing tweets from other Occupy protesters who've been arrested.

Harris, 23, managing editor for The New Inquiry online magazine, was among more than 700 people arrested on the bridge after authorities said the protesters blocked traffic. Police said the demonstrators disregarded orders not to leave a pedestrian path. Like others, Harris says many demonstrators didn't hear the police warnings and thought officers were letting them onto the road.

The charge against Harris is a violation, not a crime. Maintaining his innocence, he is heading toward trial after turning down a deal to get the case dismissed by staying out of trouble for six months.

In online pieces, Harris has mentioned that he tweeted during the march and his arrest. He also tweeted when Twitter notified him of the Jan. 26 subpoena for "any and all user information, including email address, as well as any and all tweets posted" from Sept. 15 to Dec. 31 on what Harris acknowledged was his account at the time. He has since changed Twitter handles and taken down his old tweets.

The subpoena also directed Twitter not to tell anyone about the subpoena, saying disclosure "would impede the investigation being conducted."

But San Francisco-based Twitter Inc. told prosecutors a few days later that its policy is to tell users about information requests, unless a law or court order prevents doing so. Prosecutors then said they weren't seeking to keep the subpoena confidential, according to emails attached to the DA's filing Wednesday.

Twitter declined to comment Thursday on any specific subpoena but pointed to the policy.

Prosecutors say they want the subscriber information that connects the account to Harris, plus his public tweets, not the private, one-on-one Twitter communications known as direct messages.

Langston wrote that the tweets are expected to show that Harris "was well aware of the police instructions ... (and) prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defense he has advanced thus far is false."

Langston pointed to an Oct. 3 New Inquiry essay in which Harris described an officer with a megaphone warning protesters to stay on the walkway to avoid arrest, with chants of "take the bridge!" drowning out the admonition. The piece also says police then walked away from the crowd as the marchers started down the road — a gesture that many saw as allowing them to proceed, says Harris' lawyer, Martin Stolar.

"That's not inconsistent with the defense," Stolar said Thursday.

Prosecutors say they need the full 3½ months of tweets to capture any messages that might "indicate that this was a planned act" or that made admissions afterward.

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