What Happens In Vegas…

A federal court case raises the question of if what happens in a Vegas newspaper’s website stays in a Vegas newspaper’s website.

On June 2, the Las Vegas Tribune Review received a federal grand jury subpoena asking for information that would identify the posters of dozens of comments below one of the newspaper’s stories on a colorful tax evasion case.

Several of the comments, which read like little more than steam-blowing, contained implied or explicit death threats against the jurors in the case, and a federal prosecutor saw it fit to track down those writers. Rather than tailor the request, the prosecutor asked the paper for records on everyone who’d commented on the story, no matter how anodyne their words may have been.

Later that week, The Tribune-Review’s editor revealed the existence of the subpoena in a column where he described the request as “Tantamount to killing a gnat with an A-bomb.”

Meanwhile, the ACLU of Nevada posted a notice in the comment thread at question, offering their services to any commenters who were worried about their information being released. They eventually filed a brief asking that a judge rule that the original subpoena was an unconstitutional infringement of the anonymous commenters’ First Amendment rights.

The paper planned to file in court to contest the subpoena, but instead entered into discussions with the prosecutor aimed at narrowing the request’s focus. The paper eventually agreed to comply with an amended subpoena demanding they turn over the IP addresses behind just two comments, and has done so. (The paper’s comment policy warns that they may turn over identifying information as the result of legal action.)

The ACLU is persisting in its case, hoping that if the original request is found to be invalid that a judge will rule that the evidence turned over by the Tribune-Review be quashed.

“In our view, the subpoenas are clearly problematic because the government is in essence trying to squelch the criticism — most of the comments were critical of the government in this case, and now they’re seeking their information, including IP addresses, presumably because they can turn around and go to the ISP and get more precise information about who these people might be,” Maggie McLetchie, a Nevada ACLU attorney, told Simon Owens.

An interesting case.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.