Justice Department subpoenas Reason.com over threats to judge in comment section

Warning bells are going off on both sides of the internet divide this morning after it's been reported that the Justice Department has subpoenaed libertarian magazine Reason.com to force them to hand over information on commenters who threatened the federal judge who presided over the Silk Road case.

Wall Street Journal:

Federal prosecutors have demanded that libertarian news site Reason.com help them identify readers who discussed killing a federal judge, including via wood chipper, in the comments section of an article about Silk Road Founder Ross Ulbricht.

A June 2 grand jury subpoena, obtained by Popehat’s Ken White, asks Reason to provide “any and all identifying information” for readers who wrote macabre comments in reaction to the life sentence Mr. Ulbricht received from U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest in Manhattan.

“Its (sic) judges like these that should be taken out back and shot,” wrote one commenter.

“Why waste the ammunition?” another commenter asked. “Wood chippers get the message across clearly. Especially if you feed them in feet first.”

In all, eight comments are reproduced in the subpoena, but they no longer appear on Reason’s site. The subpoena requests that Reason provide the information by Tuesday.

Reason managing editor Katherine Mangu-Ward declined to comment on the subpoena, as did a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office is handling the grand jury investigation. A call to Judge Forrest’s chambers wasn’t returned immediately.

Reason.com, the website for the monthly print magazine Reason, has been critical of the Justice Department and Judge Forrest, calling Mr. Ulbricht’s online drug bazaar a “revolutionary website that made it easier and safer to buy and sell illegal drugs” and describing his life sentence as “horrifically unjust.” At Mr. Ulbricht’s sentencing, Judge Forrest described his site as an “assault on the public health of our communities.”

The prosecution of Mr. Ulbrich has turned him into a cause celebre among a community whose members believe the government should have no dominion online. Judge Forrest had been a focus of anger, even before she sentenced Mr. Ulbricht last month.

A wood chipper?  And DoJ is taking these threats seriously?

“In terms of the comments, everybody knows that Internet is a forum where exaggeration and hyperbole take place,” said Kimberly Chow, who works with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “These comments are in that category. Nobody believes that these people are going to go and put this judge in a wood chipper.”

George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin, who has contributed articles to Reason.com in the past, wrote in the Washington Post that using a grand jury to weed out internet “trolls” was “ill-advised.”

“To put it mildly, comments such as these are hardly valuable contributions to public discourse,” Somin argued. “But if federal prosecutors investigated every similar anonymous comment on the internet, we could probably devote the entire federal budget to hunting down these types of blogosphere trolls, and still not find them all.”

One of Reason.com's original editors, Virginia Postrel:

No one in their right mind would take this hyperbolic venting seriously as threatening Judge Forrest, who back in the fall had personal information published on an underground site, along with talk of stealing her identity or calling in tips to send SWAT teams to her house. The Reason commenters, by contrast, included nothing so specific. . .

Venting anger about injustice is not a crime. Neither is being obnoxious on the Internet. The chances of one of these commenters being convicted of threatening the judge are essentially nil. Conviction isn’t the point. Crying “threats” just makes a handy pretext for harassing Reason and its commenters.

"Harassing" is the point.  Reason.com has been vociferously opposed to numerous actions by the Justice Department, and it could be that some attorneys saw a way to get back at the publication. 

Beyond harassment, there is a cluelessness about internet protocols and tradition that is just mind-blowing.  What cave have these people been living in the last 20 years? 

One of my first jobs on the internet was comment moderator for a large conservative website.  In addition to adjudicating disputes over whether a comment crossed the line, I was also on the lookout for threateing comments like the ones that appeared briefly on Reason.com.  Many of these "threatening" comments were so obviously a parody that I let them go.  I myself have left comments talking about boiling some political personality in oil and the like.  I'd hate to think the government was going to arrest me for suggesting we hang some liberal from the highest yardarm.