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DAN CONLEY

SECRET PROBE OF "GUIDO FAWKES" VIOLATES LEGAL TRANSPARENCY

The anonymous Twitter user known as "Guido Fawkes" may be a free-speech hero, singled out by authorities because they didn't like what he was saying. Or he may be involved in crimes such as hacking the Boston Police Department and posting personal information about police officers.

Frankly, the latter is more likely the case than the former. But because Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley won't say, he has earned a Muzzle for attempting to suppress anonymous online speech without public explanation.

The case against Fawkes unfolded last December, when the DA's office served an administrative subpoena (that is, one that can be issued without any judicial pre-approval) to Twitter demanding all identifying information related to Fawkes, whose Twitter handle — now suspended — was @pOisAnON. The subpoena included a request that Twitter not inform Fawkes. Twitter executives, to their credit, ignored the request, following their policy of telling users about all such legal demands unless they are explicitly prohibited from doing so.

Following several months of mostly secret proceedings in Suffolk Superior Court, Twitter turned over the information in March, with Fawkes's ACLU lawyer, Peter Krupp, saying he still didn't know what the investigation was about. (Just before deadline, a judge in Manhattan ruled that Twitter also had to turn over deleted tweets by a Brooklyn writer involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement last fall.)

"We continue to believe that our client has a constitutional right to speak, and to speak anonymously; and that this administrative subpoena both exceeded the scope of the administrative subpoena statute and infringed our client's rights under the First Amendment," he said, according to a blog post at boston.com by ACLU of Massachusetts executive director Carol Rose.

Some observers have speculated that the investigation is somehow tied to arrests made as Occupy Boston was being evicted last December. But Conley spokesman Jake Wark has called such speculation "erroneous," and added, according to the Boston Globe: "Broadly speaking, we use subpoenas to investigate and prosecute criminal acts, not political speech. Suggestions to the contrary are simply unfounded."

That's probably true. But our legal system was designed to be open so that we could verify such claims for ourselves — and not have to take the government at its word.

Phoenix contributor Dan Kennedy is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University. He can be reached at da.kennedy@neu.edu.

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