Two companies who must remain anonymous about their fight against secret government demands for information known as national security letters (NSLs) are backing Twitter’s lawsuit over its rights to publish information about NSLs it may have received. The companies—a telecom and an Internet company—are represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
Twitter filed its suit in October, saying users deserved to know certain basic facts about NSLs that the government did or did not serve on the social media company. NSLs—issued by the federal government but not approved by a judge—almost always contain a gag order barring the companies from notifying their customers or the public that any demands have been made.
The companies represented by EFF also want to go public with some details of their fights against NSLs, including their corporate identities and what they have done to protect their customers from unreasonable collection of information. In an amicus brief filed today, they argue that the gag orders are an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech and a serious infringement of their First Amendment rights. However, the government continues to maintain that even identifying EFF’s clients as having received an NSL might endanger national security.
“The Supreme Court as well as courts across the land have recognized that a prior restraint—preventing speech in the first instance instead of imposing a penalty after the speech—is a serious and dangerous step,” said EFF Legal Fellow Andrew Crocker. “Yet with NSLs, we have prior restraints imposed at the government’s whim, without any judicial oversight or review. Our clients want to talk about their experience with these NSLs, but the government is unconstitutionally shielding itself from any criticism or critique of their procedures.”
In 2013, a federal district court judge in San Francisco agreed with EFF and its clients that the NSL provisions were unconstitutional, and barred any future NSLs and accompanying gag orders. That ruling was stayed pending appeal, however, and the district court has subsequently enforced additional NSLs while EFF is arguing the case in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
“The district court in our case against national security letters was right—the First Amendment forbids the FBI from gagging service providers from openly discussing such invasive, secretive, and unaccountable activities,” said EFF Deputy General Counsel Kurt Opsahl. “On behalf of our clients, we are asking this court to reach the same conclusion, and allow the public to get information they need about law enforcement activities.”
For the full brief in Twitter v. Holder:
For more on NSLs: