Penn. AG Subpoenas Twitter: A Move To Silence Critics?

May 20, 2010 5:09 am

Is the attorney general of Pennsylvania using his authority to go after political critics?

Tom Corbett, who this week won the GOP nomination in the state’s gubernatorial race, has subpoenaed Twitter, demanding that it provide information about the people behind two accounts, reports TechCrunch. The subpoena refers to “alleged violations of the laws of Pennsylvania”.It doesn’t specify what those violations might be. And Corbett’s office hasn’t responded to our inquiry. But a look at one of the Twitter accounts in question — @CasaBlancaPA — suggests what might have teed Corbett off.

Some sample tweets:

– “Is it wrong to mix campaign work with taxpayer business? Apparently not when Tom Corbett does it bonusgate #pagovrace” [LINK]

– “Corbett erupts at campaign event; security tries to eject questioner #bonusgate #pagovrace” [LINK]

– “Quiz! Who sputters with indignation over failure to recuse from cases involving contributors? #bonusgate #pagovrace” [LINK]

Those tweets link to a blog whose tagline reads: “Exposing the hypocrisy of Tom Corbett.”

The other account that Corbett wants information on — bfbarbie — also consists almost entirely of attacks on Corbett.

Matt Zimmermann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, told TPMmuckraker that Corbett’s move appears to be part of a worrying trend. “This is just another flavor of the same concern that we and others have had for a long time,” he said, “which is the use of the legal process to try to out critics.”

In response, “Signor Ferrari,” who writes the blog connected to the CasaBlancaPA account, wrote yesterday:

We believe this is more about the blog than the Tweets. We have not received notification of a subpoena to Blogger, so we really don’t know. We are seeking legal representation and plan to ask Twitter not to comply.

Although the subpoena was to appear last week, we believe Twitter asked for additional time because we received notification last night. We believe in the constitutionally-protected right of Americans to criticize public officials anonymously.

Twitter didn’t respond to our request for comment, but its legal counsel told TechCrunch in a statement:

We protect and do not disclose user information except in limited circumstances. We notify a user, if we believe we are allowed to by law, when we receive any request for their information that we may be required to comply with. This policy is designed for maximum transparency and gives users an opportunity to object.

In March, Corbett joined other attorneys general in filing suit to challenge the constitutionality of the health-care reform law.

He isn’t the only Republican AG who has used his subpoena power recently for questionable ends. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has demanded that the University of Virginia turn over records relating to the work of a former UVA climate scientist, alleging fraud. The probe has been denounced as a “witch hunt.”

Late Update: A Corbett spokesman denies that the subpoena was because of the criticism, “though he said he couldn’t detail the alleged crime or confirm that it was something apart from the online speech itself,” reports Politico.

Here’s the subpoena:
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Grand Jury Subpoena

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