In a newly unsealed case [.pdf], a Los Angeles federal court ruled that Adobe could not be indefinitely gagged about a search warrant ordering it to turn over the contents of a customer account.

This is important work by Adobe. Gag orders almost always violate the First Amendment; they prevent service providers from notifying users that the government is requesting their sensitive data and from being transparent about surveillance in general. And yet, providers receive indefinite gags with frustrating frequency. In most contexts, the government must do little to justify these gags and instead relies on rote invocations of national security and the sanctity of investigations.

The Adobe gag was issued under 18 U.S.C. § 2705(b), the same law Microsoft is challenging as facially unconstitutional because it allows for indefinite gags.1 These arguments are also at the heart of EFF’s long-running national security letter (NSL) lawsuit, which was argued in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last month.

Thankfully, the court in Adobe’s case recognized the serious harm to free speech these gags represent. It held that orders barring companies from notifying their users about government data requests are both prior restraints and content-based restrictions on speech subject to strict scrutiny. That’s a very high bar. The court found that the indefinite gag order imposed on Adobe fails strict scrutiny because the government could make “no showing[] that Adobe’s speech will threaten the investigation in perpetuity.”

The government’s attempts to save the Adobe gag order were nearly identical to arguments it made in our NSL litigation. It claimed gags don’t even implicate Adobe’s First Amendment rights because the company only wants to speak about information learned from the government, and that an indefinite gag was OK because Adobe could simply come to court when the need for a gag had passed. But on point after point, the court rejected these arguments. The First Amendment requires gag orders to be narrowly tailored, and Section 2705(b) orders and NSL gags come nowhere close to meeting that standard. As the court put it, “the fact that the speaker cannot know when the restriction's ‘raison d'etre fades’ effectively equates to no tailoring at all.”

While the appeals court in our NSL case doesn’t have to follow this court’s lead, we think any First Amendment arguments that can be deployed against 2705(b) orders are doubly effective for NSLs. That’s because the FBI can issue indefinite NSL gags without even going before a court, as Section 2705(b) requires.

Adobe’s fight should demolish another of the government’s arguments in our NSL case: that providers don’t want to speak out about gags. Adobe promises to notify its customers about government data requests in all cases unless “legally prohibited from doing so.” And it goes one step further, stating upfront that indefinite gags “are not constitutionally valid and we challenge them in court.” Following through on this promise gives lie to the unsupportable claim that providers don’t care to speak out on these issues.

Here’s hoping the days of indefinite gag orders are numbered.

  • 1. Section 2705(b) allows a court to issue a gag “for such period as the court deems appropriate.” There’s an interesting split of opinion on whether that language allows for indefinite gag, or whether the word “period” implies a finite limit. The court in Adobe’s case determined that periods can in fact be indefinite, which led to its First Amendment ruling.