A New York City judge ruled on Monday that Twitter must abide by a subpoena to turn over deleted tweets posted by Occupy Wall Street protester Malcolm Harris, reports The New York Times. The decision could have far-reaching consequences for how online speech is treated under U.S. law.
According to Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Sciarrino, publicly-posted tweets do not enjoy the same protection as private speech.
“The Constitution gives you the right to post, but as numerous people have learned, there are still consequences for your public posts,” wrote Sciarrino in his ruling. “What you give to the public belongs to the public. What you keep to yourself belongs only to you.”
Harris, who was arrested in October for walking on the roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge along with about 700 other protesters, deleted some of his tweets posted prior to the protest. Prosecutors in the case believe that some of those tweets may contain evidence that contradicts a potential argument of Harris’s defense: That the police, not the protesters, led the march down the roadway of the bridge rather than down the pedestrian walkway.
In May, Twitter went to bat for Harris, filing a motion to quash the subpoena for his tweets, arguing that obtaining such information should require a search warrant, which the prosecution did not have. Twitter further argued that its users “retain rights to any Content [they] submit, post, or display on or through” the micro-blogging network. Judge Sciarrino’s decision rules that Twitter users do not in fact “own” their tweets — the “public” does.
So, what does this mean for the average Internet user? Well, if you are never arrested or involved in a legal proceeding during which the courts want access to information you’ve posted online, then this decision will have no consequence for your life. If, however, your tweets, blog posts, or public Facebook updates become a matter of interest to the courts, Judge Sciarrino’s decision means that law enforcement can gain access to those posts — even if you’ve deleted them — without a search warrant. So, as always, be careful what you say online — it can and will be used against you in a court of law.