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Feds to Libertarian Magazine: Spy on Commenters, and Keep Quiet About It!

© AP Photo / Damian DovarganesHands type at a keyboard.
Hands type at a keyboard. - Sputnik International
A libertarian magazine received a federal subpoena demanding information about online commenters who posted threats on a story about the case of Ross Ulbricht, the creator of the "dark web" site Silk Road.

Reason describes itself as a magazine dedicated to "Free Minds and Free Markets." On May 31, Nick Gillespie, an editor at Reason.com, published a blog post about the life sentence handed down to Ulbricht by Judge Katherine Forrest. 

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In an editorial published Thursday by the Daily Beast, Gillespie recalled that some online commenters were unforgiving toward the judge:

"In the comments section, a half-dozen commenters unloaded on Forrest, suggesting that, among other things, she should burn in hell, 'be taken out back and shot,' and, in a well-worn Internet homage to the Coen Brothers movie Fargo, be fed 'feet first' into a woodchipper."

According to Gillespie, the New York District Attorney issued a grand jury subpoena to Reason on June 2 for all identifying information the outlet had on the commenters – IP addresses, names, emails, and other information.

Initially, the feds asked that Reason "voluntarily" refrain from disclosing the subpoena to anybody. But "out of sense of fairness and principle," Gillespie wrote, Reason notified the commenters, who could have moved to quash the subpoena.

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The district attorney's office responded on June 4 with a gag order, prohibiting Reason from discussing the matter with anyone other than company attorneys.

Gillespie said the subpoena was “unnecessary” because the comments "obviously weren't real threats."

"What kind of country are we living in where you get in hot water for such tepid blaspheming? Even the more outrageous comments … wouldn’t exactly stir fear in the heart of anyone who has accessed the Web since AOL stopped charging by the hour."

Gillespie also questioned why the feds, if they thought the threats were legitimate, responded with a slow-moving subpoena whose deadline was days away. Five minutes of cursory Internet searching would have netted the feds basic info of some commenters, he said.

"Wielding subpoenas demanding information on anonymous commenters, the government is harassing a respected journalism site that dissents from its policies," Reason.com founder and former editor Virginia Postrel wrote at Bloomberg View.

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While the site's commenters often earned Postrel's "public contempt," she always knew the statements they made were "clearly hyperbolic political rhetoric."

"Getting a subpoena," Gillespie said, "is like 'only' getting arrested. It's a massive disruption to anyone's routine and should be reserved for moments when, you know, there’s actually something worthy of serious investigation."

He also pointed out that the sole reason the subpoena is now public knowledge is because Reason disseminated it against the government's wishes and before a gag order was issued – and eventually lifted.

"There's every reason to believe that various publications, social media sites, and other platforms are getting tens of thousands of similar requests a year How many of those requests are simply fulfilled without anyone knowing anything about them?"

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