Indepedant Media Center in Free Speech Battle

During the protests in Quebec City, while tens of thousands demonstrated against the FTAA, the Independent Media Center in Seattle was served with a sealed court order by two FBI agents and an agent of the US Secret Service ordering them to turn over “all user connections logs” for a 48-hour period. The logs would include individual IP addresses for every person who posted materials to or visited the IMC site during the FTAA protests. The language of the sealed order prevented IMC volunteers from publicizing its terms. The gag order was listed April 27.

While the visit by the agents was not a “raid” (no search warrant was served, no one arrested, no equipment or logs seized) the visit appears intended to chill independent media and discourage association with the IMC. The original order stated that this was part of an “ongoing criminal investigation” into acts that could constitute violations of Canadian law, specifically theft and mischief. IMC legal counsel David Sobel, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, comments: “As the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized, the First Amendment protects the right to communicate anonymously with the press and for political purposes. An order compelling the disclosure of information identifying an indiscriminately large number of users of a website devoted to political discourse raises very serious constitutional issues.”

The sealed court order also directed the IMC not to disclose “the existence of this Application or Order, or the existence of this investigation, unless or until ordered by this court.” Such a prior restraint on a media organization goes to the heart of the First Amendment. This order created an absurd circumstance in which IMC volunteers, in order to avoid contempt of Court, made a frantic attempt to suppress articles and information about the service of the order on their own web site, while mainstream media was able to freely discuss the situation. These efforts were finally abandoned because the unexplained disappearance of articles posted to the IMC site about the supposed “raid” just fanned the flames of rumor.

The order did not specify what acts were being investigated, and the Secret Service agent acknowledged that the IMC itself was not suspected of criminal activity. The agents claimed that their investigation concerned the source of either one or two postings which, they said, had been posted to an IMC newswire early Saturday morning. These posts, according to the agents, contained documents stolen from a Canadian government agency, including classified information related to the travel itinerary of George W. Bush. Bush who was at that time in Quebec City, participating in Summit of the Americas meetings. Agents claimed that the Secret Service was notified of the existence of such posts by a tip from an unnamed major commercial news network.

The agents were unable to provide URL addresses or titles for the postings they described. Additionally, the court order contained a non-working IP address, rather than an address assigned to any of the IMC sites. IMC volunteers nevertheless were able to identify two articles posted to the Montreal IMC which partially matched the agents’ incomplete description. These articles, posted first in French and then in English translations, contain sections of documents purportedly stolen from a Quebec City police car during Friday night anti-FTAA demonstrations. The documents detail police strategies for hindering protesters’ mass action. It does not appear that any materials were posted to any IMC site containing Bush travel plans.

The Seattle Independent Media Center was launched in Fall 1999 to provide immediate, authentic, grassroots coverage of protests against the WTO. Just a year and a half later, the IMC network has reached around the world, with dozens of sites scattered across six continents. IMCs are autonomously organized and administered, but share collective organizational principles and certain technological resources. Each IMC’s news coverage centers upon its open-publishing newswire, an innovative and democratizing system allowing anyone with access to an Internet connection to become a journalist, reporting on events from his or her own perspective rather than being forced to rely on the narrow range of views presented by corporate-owned mainstream media sources.

Info: Seattle Independent Media Center, 1415 3rd Ave., Seattle, WA, 98101, 206.262.0721, 206.262.9905 fax