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Summary:

A New York judge who has been disciplined in the past for misusing social media today forced Twitter to turn over the tweets of one of its users. The surrender serves to undercut Twitter’s right to appeal part of the closely watched social media case.

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Faced with a harsh contempt of court threat, Twitter today surrendered the tweets of an Occupy Wall Street protestor to a Manhattan judge.

The tweets belong to Malcolm Harris, who was among hundreds arrested last year during a protest that spilled onto the Brooklyn Bridge.

The case became a media sensation after Twitter notified Harris about prosecutors’ demands for his account. Harris then challenged the demand but, in a remarkable decision, Judge Matthew Sciarrino Jr., ruled that he had no standing because the tweets did not belong to him.

After Twitter stepped in on Harris’s behalf, Sciarrino issued another unusual decision that suggested people have little or no constitutional rights in what they publish on social media.

Twitter is appealing the rulings but Sciarrino effectively shut down the appeal this month by ordering the company to turn over Harris’ account or face a contempt of court order and a large fine.

Sciarrino’s brash series of orders are all the more striking because the judge himself has been disciplined for misusing social media, including allegedly attempting to “friend” lawyers on Facebook and updating his status from the bench.

According to Reuters, which first reported the story, Twitter handed over the tweets this morning and they will remain under seal under at least next week when Harris will argue another appeal. His criminal trial is set to go forward in December.

The case is significant because it is helping to define privacy and free speech in the age of social media. While tweets are by their nature public statements, Harris had deleted them. The issue of whether or not they are still public documents is an open question but the more pressing legal issue is over who owns them in the first place.

Twitter is adamant that users own their tweets, which makes Sciarrino’s ruling that Harris has no standing a potentially egregious error. If his finding is overruled, it will confirm that users can stand up for their own speech and privacy rights.

 

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  1. How does the judge’s decision obviate the appeal? If the sole purpose of the appeal was to withhold the tweets, I might agree. But if the purpose of the appeal was also to address the ownership question then it seems to me that is still an open issue.

    1. Thanks for the comment, txpatriot. In its filing earlier this week, Twitter said producing the tweets will lead the prosecutors to treat the action as a waiver of its right to participate in future proceedings. See paragraphs 22-23 of its filing embedded here; http://gigaom.com/2012/09/12/the-facebook-addicted-judge-and-the-little-blue-bird/

  2. 1984 version 2012

  3. Twitter is a public forum. Regardless of who “owns” the tweets, any tweets can be required by a court if they amount to legitimate evidence in a court case. Law is very clear on this.

    1. bekaarho, but what about the standing issue? If I have no ownership of what I post on Twitter, what about my deleted tweets, direct messages and location data related to the posts? I urge you to read Sciarrino’s decisions (they will make you cringe).

  4. Rebels without a unified cause are still proof that all is not well with the status quo.
    “Let them eat cake.”
    That won’t do for Wall Street, anymore than it did for Marie Antoinette.
    Deep inequalities exist out there and we should try to see them — despite the myopic tendency of the Street.

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