Net Speech, Free Speech, Hate Speech

US feds subpoena names of anonymous web commenters • The Register

U.S. prosecutors narrow subpoena –

Activist Accused of “Advocating Literature and Materials Which Advocate Anarchy” |

David Grenier: You Could Get 10 Years in Prison Just for Reading This

Perusing the websites of comrades and fellow-travelers – particularly anti-globalization activists and anarchists / anarcho-syndicalists – I periodically run across disclaimers to the effect that nothing on the website should be taken as advocating violence or illegal acts, etc.

(Of course, now that I want to write about these disclaimers, I can’t find one easily, and it seems too trivial a thing to spend ages hunting one down…)

But I have yet to see any similar disclaimer on any of the anti-abortion, neo-Nazi and white supremacist sites I’ve checked out, despite the intense levels of venom and deeply disturbing extremist language that is the “house style” for these people.

Some people like this do seem to have gotten themselves in trouble over in Las Vegas, though – for anonymous comments posted to an article in The Las Vegas Review-Journal on the trial of a man charged with tax fraud/evasion. A while back The Register – the online technology magazine – reported on the subpoenaing of the paper by federal agents seeking information on the identities of two persons who posted anonymous comments that appeared to threaten, or at least welcome or condone, violence against the jury and prosecutor in this case.

But while of course I’m happy to have trouble find people like this, generally speaking, legal trouble of this kind – feds coming after you for something you said – is a bit worrying. An article in the Review-Journal – where the comments appeared – noted that the feds’ original subpoena asked for identifying information on everyone who had posted comments, but this disturbingly broad request was quickly  replaced by a narrower subpoena aimed at just the two inflammatory comments.  (The two comments at issue are below, as they were given in The Register, to save you the trouble of looking them up.)

In explaining the paper’s decision to comply with the revised subpoena, Review-Journal editor Thomas Mitchell said, “I’d hate to be the guy who refused to tell the feds Timothy McVeigh was buying fertilizer.” But the ACLU was preparing its own motion to quash the subpoena and block the release of information on the identities of the posters. And there is a big difference between posting angry and violent remarks in a very public forum and buying bomb-making supplies.

As I’ve said before, actions aimed at curbing speech, etc., usually end up impacting radicals far more than reactionaries over the long haul.

Consider, for instance, the case of Hugh Farrell and Gina “Tiga” Wertz, two environmental activists who have been charged under Federal racketeering statutes “for allegedly ‘conspiring’ to engage in tree sits, participate in non-violent civil disobedience, and make an inflammatory blog post against the I-69 NAFTA superhighway” [read about it here]. The government’s motion for a $20,000 cash bond for Farrell’s release included the following accusation:

“The defendant has been observed advocating literature and materials which advocate anarchy, property destruction and violence, including ‘Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching’ or ‘Recipes for Disaster: An Anarchist Cookbook.’”

If you would like to get in on this kind of dangerous activity, you can click over to and pick up either of these two books – here and here. As for advocating, it seems to me all you have to do is post a favorable review or “recommend” these books to fall foul of the Feds’ accusation.

(I suggested – big, corporate – to make a point: how dangerous are these books if you can order them from Amazon? If you really would like to pick up a copy of these books – and they are both excellent – do it at Powell’s here and here.)

In many ways, this is nothing new: the demonization of anarchists has existed as long as the term itself. But this is dangerous territory for a few reasons:

  • It reflects more wasted resources on surveillance of First Amendment activity. Why was Farrell being “observed” by law enforcement while allegedly “advocating literature” in the first place?
  • It is intended to punish people for their political beliefs. Even if it is true that Farrell was observed advocating literature and that the literature advocated “anarchy,” how does this relate to whether or not he’ll show up for his court date (which is what bail is all about)? This looks like an attempt to impose punitive bail conditions to punish Farrell for his unpopular dissent.
  • Criminalizing dissent has no place in a democracy. Make no mistake, that’s what this is about: criminalizing dissent. The government isn’t burning the books, and it isn’t saying it is illegal to own them, but prosecutors are saying that if you do own them or “advocate” them it reflects negatively on your character. In that case, I’m guilty as well (and I’m sure I’m in good company with many of you). I own both of these books, and many more just as bad, and they are both available in countless bookstores in addition to Amazon and Powell’s. Ecodefense was a pivotal book in the history of the environmental movement, and includes an introduction by Ed Abbey. Recipes for Disaster, published by crimethinc., isn’t the “anarchist cookbook,” you might expect: it has sections on coalition building and mental health. And no bomb making instructions.
  • As with so many of the cases I write about on this site, this isn’t about threats to public safety; it isn’t about property destruction; it’s about demonizing people because of their political beliefs. Well, in this case, it’s not even about that: it’s about demonizing people because of the books they like.

Here are the troublesome comments, as reported on in The Register:

“The sad thing is there are 12 dummies on the jury who will convict him. They should be hung along with the feds,” posted one of the offending commenters.

Another wagered “quatloos” (an alien currency from Star Trek) that one of the federal prosecutors wouldn’t live to see his next birthday. [The Register]

Honestly, haven’t you read worse hundreds of times in internet “flame wars” and in other comments? And how serious can you take a “threat” that includes such a lame Star Trek reference (and I say that as a fan)?

For more incendiary literature from crimethinc – reading that might get you denied bail – check out:


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