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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.