Friday, May 21, 2010

Notes & Quotes: From My Interview with Targeted Tweeter, ACLU

First, here is a link to my Channel 4 Action News story on my interview with "Signor Ferrari", one of the anonymous tweeters -- along with BFBarbie -- targeted by PA Attorney General Tom Corbett's grand jury subpoena. It's a follow-up to this story in which I asked Republican gubernatorial candidate Corbett about the the case.

I should also note that Attorney General's office spokesman Kevin Harley tells me:

"This matter will be more fully explained (Friday) morning in Dauphin County Court at the sentencing hearing of convicted felon Brett Cott, who was one of the principals who was convicted in March as part of the bonus (Bonusgate) investigation that we did."

Now the notes from the Q&As.

The person who goes by the alias Signor Ferrari is behind the targeted Twitter account CasablancaPA; here are my notes of what blogger Ferrari said in our phone interview:

Reaction to the subpoena:

Ferrari: "We consider it a violation of the First Amendment… The right to criticize public officials anonymously is constitutionally protected."

On tweeting and blogging:

Ferrari: "We have very closely followed Corbett's investigation of the legislature. We've examined some of his other actions as Attorney General, and we've simply pointed out instances where we feel that he has basically not lived up to his responsibilities."

Target of criminal investigation?

Ferrari: "That's not a question I'm prepared to answer. We intend to remain anonymous and we will not confirm or deny who we are, whether we're connected to the defendants."

Anything to say to Tom Corbett?

Ferrari: "What we have to say to Tom Corbett we have said in our blog and we will continue to say it on our blog."

Why should anyone care about this case?

Ferrari: "Because what happens to us could happen to anyone. This is really not about the identities of these particular bloggers. This is about the right of an american to anonymously criticize a public official."

Closing comment:

Ferrari: "I'm just extremely grateful to the ACLU and very encouraged by the support we've gotten from fellow bloggers and tweeters on the internet."


Vic Walczak, the Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Pennsylvania Chapter tells me the ACLU is now representing both Signor Ferrari and the other targeted blogger who goes by the name BFBarbie. Here are some quotes from that interview:

Q: He wants to know who the two tweeters are. What's wrong with that?
Walczak: "The tweeters are individuals who have been criticizing Attorney General Corbett and the whole Bonusgate prosecution as being overly political."

"It is a prized American possession not only to only to criticize the government, but to criticize the government anonymously. This is a tradition that goes back to the founding of this country, when you think about Thomas Paine handing out his leaflet ' Common Sense', that was done anonymously. The Federalist Papers, perhaps the most important documents written about government, were written anonymously. It's a right that the Supreme Court has recognized time and time again. …You know, the right to criticize the government anonymously is very, very important in this country."

"If the Attorney General sees this as being somehow criminal, then he's in for a huge first amendment fight, because that would be tantamount to criminal libel, which we got rid of decades ago. …I mean you don't throw people in jail because they criticize you. And that is a very scary thought when you think about somebody who's been nominated by one of the major political parties for governor of this state. If the view is that you can throw critics in jail, or somehow use the criminal justice system against them, that's kind of a scary notion."

On the specific legal concerns:

Walczak: "This would appear to be a misuse of the grand jury process to get information in aid of sentencing. The theory seems to be that the A.G.'s office believes that one or both tweeters are a legislative aide, Brett Cott who has been convicted and is to be sentenced tomorrow. They've filed a pre-sentencing report saying that if Mr. Cott is the one who is the one who is tweeting these criticisms of the A.G. and the prosecution, that that means he's not showing sufficient remorse and that in fact the sentence should be enhanced. So, is this an appropriate use of the grand jury process? We think not."

"The second is it's just a frontal assault on the First amendment. You don't just go and unmask your political critics. You're got to have an awfully good reason to do that, and we certainly we haven't heard one in this case."

What if such a tweeter were, in fact, a convicted criminal?

Walczak: "We don't believe that changes the legal analysis at all here. I mean even if it's a person who has been convicted, they don't give up their constitutional rights. They will give up their liberty at some point, but they certainly don't give up their right to criticize the prosecutor or anybody else."

What's next?

Walczak: "Right now we're in discussions with the attorney general's office and we are hoping to convince them to withdraw these subpoenas. If that doesn't work, then we'll be filing papers, probably a motion to quash the subpoena. And then we'll see what happens."

If I'm someone who doesn't know about Twitter and barely cares who's running for governor, why should I care about this?

Walczak: "I think everybody should care about whether or not the government can somehow punish you or retaliate against you if you say things critical of the government. I mean it's a prized right to be able to criticize your elected officials."