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Judge Says Twitter Can Move Forward With First Amendment Lawsuit Over NSL Reporting Limitations

Twitter's First Amendment lawsuit against the government for limitations on National Security Letter reporting will be allowed to continue. This is good news for Twitter -- and the general public -- although it's somewhat disheartening to see things have only moved this far in the three years since the lawsuit was filed.

Reporting on NSLs is limited to "bands." A social media service receiving three NSLs has to report it as "0-499." The same goes for a service that receives 300 NSLs over the same period. Twitter is fighting to have these "bands" removed, in order to more accurately report the number of NSLs it receives.

So far, the government's arguments for leaving the bands in place have been as vague as the information tech companies are allowed to release. It asserts -- without evidence -- that reporting the actual number of NSLs (or FISA orders) will harm national security. The fact that NSLs are accompanied by indefinite gag orders grants the government an insane amount of opacity relative to the level of oversight these NSLs receive. NSLs are administrative documents the FBI (and other agencies) can issue themselves, which receive no impartial scrutiny from judges or anyone outside the issuing agency.

The government's attempt to dismiss this lawsuit has failed, so Twitter will be allowed to move forward with its First Amendment lawsuit. The opening of the opinion [PDF] makes it clear the DOJ going to need to come up with a better argument if it hopes to keep this banded opacity in place. (via Ars Technica)

The Court finds the Government has not met its high burden to overcome the strong presumption of unconstitutionality on the record before the Court. The Government’s restrictions on Twitter’s speech are content-based prior restraints subject to the highest level of scrutiny under the First Amendment. The restrictions are not narrowly tailored to prohibit only speech that would pose a clear and present danger or imminent harm to national security. The Government argues that the limitations imposed on Twitter are necessary because disclosure of data concerning the number and type of national security legal process that it received in a time period would impair national security interests and is properly classified. However, the Government has not presented evidence, beyond a generalized explanation, to demonstrate that disclosure of the information in the Draft Transparency Report would present such a grave and serious threat of damage to national security as to meet the applicable strict scrutiny standard.

An unclassified declaration by the director of the FBI's national security branch appears to form the basis for the assertions the court finds lacking. It's basically what's covered above: the information is "properly classified" and releasing it would do damage to national security. Other arguments along the same lines are applied to granular disclosure of received FISA orders. The DOJ points out the First Amendment does not allow possessors of classified information to share it freely.

The court says this bare assertion isn't enough to overcome Twitter's valid First Amendment complaint:

[T]he Court does not agree with the Government’s position that simply determining information meets the requirements for classification under Executive Order 13526 ends the Constitutional analysis. That the information is classified is not, in itself, a sufficient basis for the Government’s prohibition on its disclosure…

The First Amendment requires strict scrutiny of content-based restrictions and prior restraints, regardless of the Government’s basis for nondisclosure.

It's not just the DOJ's public arguments that suck. The court points assertions made behind closed doors have also done nothing to justify the prior restraint.

Here, the declarations of Steinbach, both in camera and public, fail to provide sufficient details indicating that the decision to classify the information in the Draft Transparency Report was based on anything more specific than the reporting bands in section 1874 and the FBI’s position that more granular information “could be expected to harm national security.” The declarations do not provide an indication of grave or imminent harm arising from the disclosures in the Draft Transparency Report. Rather, the concerns raised to relate to the overall concern from one or more of any electronic communication service regardless of the specific provider or circumstance. Merely declaring a view that more granular reporting would create an unacceptable risk does not make it so, especially in light of the Government’s acknowledgement of the strong public interest in the information.

The government is apparently so used to receiving judicial deference it didn't bother to do much more than recite its national security mantras.

Rather, the declaration largely relies on a generic, and seemingly boilerplate, description of the mosaic theory and a broad brush concern that the information at issue will make more difficult the complications associated with intelligence gathering in the internet age.

If the DOJ has an actual, articulable reason for forbidding more precise transparency reporting, it has yet to deliver this argument to the court. However, it's had three years to do so and hasn't produced anything yet. It appears to feel the court should make with the NATSEC deference and toss the case. Now, it's actually going to need to produce some evidence that granular reporting will harm intelligence gathering or harm the nation.

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