Reason

How the Feds' Subpoena of Reason and Gag Order Went Public

Popehat.com's Ken White on how he broke the subpoena story and what government overreach means for open expression online.

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You may have already heard about how the government tried to stifle Reason's free speech.

Federal prosecutors based in New York sent a grand jury subpoena and letter to Reason, commanding editors to hand over the records of six commenters who wrote hyperbolic statements about federal judge Katherine Forrest below a blog post at Reason.com. Forrest sentenced Ross Ulbricht to life in prison without parole for creating the Silk Road website.

Then came a gag order from U.S. District Court, meaning Reason could not write or speak publicly about the subpoena or gag order—even to acknowledge either existed. But between the subpoena being issued and the gag order being issued, one legal blogger managed to figure out what was going on.

"I got an email and I looked at it and I thought wow, this is a federal grand jury subpoena to Reason magazine," says Ken White, a writer at the legal blog Popehat who is himself a former federal prosecutor. White sat down with Reason TV to talk about how he broke the story and what he thinks it means for press freedom and open expression online.

"What's upsetting is that there is no indication whatsoever either that the prosecutor or the judge gave any consideration to the fact that this was being aimed at a reporting organization about a First Amendment issue," says White. What's more, White stresses that the comments named in the subpoena are commonplace for the internet and especially at Reason.com, a site, he notes, "whose clever writing is eclipsed only by the blowhard stupidity of its commenting peanut gallery."

The scrutinized comments ranged from taunts such as "I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman" to "Its (sic) judges like these that should be taken out back and shot," but none, say White, come close to qualifying as "true" threats or anything other idle chatter. It remains unclear why the U.S. Attorney's Office was interested in such internet fodder, how often these sorts of subpoenas get sent out to news organizations, and how often they comply. Nevertheless, White points out that federal prosecutors hold an enormous amount of power over human lives and rarely reflect on how they use—and abuse—their position.

"A fish doesn't know that it's in water," says White. "A federal prosecutor doesn't know that they are swimming in power. They could do it, so they did."

Produced by Paul Detrick. Shot by Zach Weissmueller and Justin Monticello.

Approximately 10:03.

Music is "VibeDrive" by Podington Bear, "Atlantis" by Audionautix, "How to Soothe a Digital Watch" by Ergo Phizmiz, and Unerkla?rliche (oder unidentifizierbare) Spiele im Kornfeld" by deef. 

Watch the video above for the full interview with Novak, and scroll down for downloadable versions. Subscribe to Reason TV's YouTube channel for daily content like this.