The fight, which came to light on Monday when Dreamhost published a blog post entitled “We Fight For the Users,” centers on a search warrant for information about a website, disruptj20.org, which served as a clearinghouse for activists seeking to mobilize resistance to Mr. Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20.
The website featured maps to organize blockades of intersections arranged around various themes — like feminism, gay rights, racial justice, climate change, immigrant rights, antiwar, and labor — and tips for legal observers. It offered printable protest signs, many critical of Mr. Trump, and afterward it posted pictures of protests.
Mr. Trump’s inauguration in Washington was the scene of massive protests. The large majority of the thousands of protesters were peaceful and engaged only in civil disobedience, such as carrying signs, marching and participating in sit-ins to block intersections.
But a smaller group of anarchists — sometimes called the “black bloc” of the so-called Antifa, or anti-fascist, movement — protested violently.
Rioting by a small group of anarchists has become common at broader left-wing demonstrations for the past generation, such as during anti-free trade protests outside World Trade Organization talks in Seattle in 1999.
During the Trump inauguration, such protesters broke the windows of shops and bus stop shelters, set a limousine on fire and threw rocks at police in riot gear, who fired tear gas at crowds. One masked man sucker-punched Richard Spencer, a prominent white nationalist, as he was being interviewed; a video of that assault was widely shared on the internet.
More than 200 people were indicted on felony rioting charges related to property damage and assault during the inauguration.
On July 12, Judge Robert P. Wertheim, who was appointed to the District of Columbia’s superior court in 1981 and retired in 1992 but still occasionally hears matters and was on duty that day, signed off on prosecutors’ request for the sweeping search warrant in pursuit of information about people who organized or participated in rioting.
Among other things it demanded that Dreamhost turn over “all records or other information” pertaining to disruptj20.org, including log files showing who visited the website, when, from where, and what they looked at, and all emails related to the website.
Dreamhost balked. And after inconclusive negotiations over the search warrant, the assistant United States attorney handling the matter, John W. Borchert, asked another superior court judge, Lynn Leibovitz, who is overseeing the rioting cases, to order Dreamhost to show cause for why it was not complying.
In court filings, Dreamhost argued among other things, that the demand was unreasonably broad, violating the Fourth Amendment, and could make innocent people afraid to view or communicate with websites containing political content, violating the First Amendment. But the government maintains that those constitutional concerns are inaccurate.
Lacy MacAuley, an activist who said she helped update and provide content for disruptj20.org, described herself as “very concerned” about the search warrant, portraying it as a tactic to scare opponents of the Trump administration.
“It’s legal to visit a website and it’s legal to attend a protest,” she wrote in an email, adding: “This search warrant is yet another intimidation tactic, but activists and our supporters should not be scared away from exercising their right to protest and dissent.”
Several civil rights groups criticized the Justice Department as going too far.
“People should be free to exercise their legitimate free-expression rights and explore new points of view without worrying that any digital footprints they leave could land them in a government database later,” said Sarah St. Vincent, a Human Rights Watch researcher and advocate who focuses on national security, surveillance and domestic law enforcement. “That could have a real chilling effect on web-based free speech.”
Judge Leibovitz set a hearing on the matter for Friday.
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