Citing national security concerns, the government is attempting to infringe on Twitter's First Amendment right to inform the public about secret government surveillance orders. For more than six years, Twitter has been fighting in court to share information about law enforcement orders it received in 2014. Now, Twitter has brought that fight to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. EFF, along with the ACLU, filed an amicus brief last week to underscore the First Amendment rights at stake.
In 2014, Twitter submitted a draft transparency report to the FBI to review. The FBI censored the report, banning Twitter from sharing the total number of foreign intelligence surveillance orders the government had served within a six-month period. In response, Twitter filed suit in order to assert its First Amendment right to share that information.
Over half a decade of litigation later, the trial court judge resolved the case in April by dismissing Twitter’s First Amendment claim. Among the several concerning aspects of the opinion, the judge spent devoted only a single paragraph to analyzing Twitter’s First Amendment right to inform the public about law enforcement orders for its users’ information.
That single paragraph was not only perfunctory, but incorrect. The lower court failed to recognize one of the most basic rules underpinning the right to free speech in this country: the government must meet an extraordinarily exacting burden in order to censor speech before that speech occurs, which the Supreme Court has called “the most serious and least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.”
As we explained in our amicus brief, to pass constitutional scrutiny, the government must prove that silencing speech before it occurs is necessary to avoid harm that is not only extremely serious but is also imminent and irreparable. But the lower court judge concluded that censoring Twitter’s speech was acceptable without finding that any resulting harm to national security would be either imminent or irreparable. Nor did the judge address whether the censorship was actually necessary, and whether less-restrictive alternatives could mitigate the potential for harm.
This cursory analysis was a far cry from the extraordinarily exacting scrutiny that the First Amendment requires. We hope that the hope that the Ninth Circuit will say the same.