Twitter took the extraordinary step on Thursday of suing the Department of Homeland Security, asking a federal judge in San Francisco to stop the agency’s efforts to unmask the identify of the user behind a “rogue” account.
The account, @ALT_uscis, is one of a number that purport to be alternatives to real government agencies—in this case, the account is an alternative to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. According to Twitter’s court filing (which you can read here), the account has been active since late January and has published thousands of tweets critical of the Trump Administration, including about its controversial travel ban:
“The @ALT_uscis account has often criticized immigration policies with which the speaker apparently disagrees. The account was created on nearly the same day that the President issued his original immigration Executive Order. Tweets from the account have repeatedly criticized the Order—often referring to it as the “#MuslimBan,” says the legal filing.
On several occasions, tweets from the account suggested the person or people operating @ALT_uscis are government employees who work at the agency. (This is similar to the other “alternative” accounts, which have been dubbed “rogue” accounts by the media.)
The Trump Administration’s efforts to go after the account reportedly began on March 14. That’s when the Customs and Borders Protection agency sent Twitter a summons demanding the social media company reveal the identify of those who created the account, and asking Twitter not to disclose news about the summons.
Twitter, however, chose to push back, questioning the legality of the summons, and then later informing the owner of the @ALT_uscis account about the investigation.
In its court filing, Twitter makes two legal arguments. First, it says the border agency’s demands exceed the ordinary scope for subpoenas. Second, Twitter argues the demand will have a chilling expression on free speech and political debate, and that the user is protected under the First Amendment.
Shortly before 4pm ET on Thursday afternoon, the author of the Twitter account posted a new message showing a part of the Constitution:
The account has since posted other new tweets, including one criticizing Trump’s use of the Mar-a-Lago resort for state business, and another saying the American Civil Liberties Union will be helping to defend the account’s user:
As of Thursday afternoon, the account had approximately 45,000 followers—up more than 10,000 just one hour after Twitter’s lawsuit came to light.
For Twitter, the decision to sue the Trump Administration is not only a bold legal move, but also a potential provocation to one its most famous users—President Trump, who uses the service almost daily to spread his message. In response to a request for comment, a Twitter spokesperson pointed to parts of the filing, one section of which reads:
“The rights of free speech afforded Twitter’s users and Twitter itself under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution include a right to disseminate such anonymous or pseudonymous political speech.”
Twitter’s latest legal gambit is not the first time the company has gone to court to protect its users. It has also waged high profile lawsuits in the name of free expression on behalf of Wikileaks and of Occupy Wall Street protestors.