The Justice Department has issued a federal grand jury subpoena to Reason, a prominent libertarian publication, to unmask the identity of commenters who made alleged threats against a federal judge.
In the June 2 subpoena, first published by the blog Popehat on Monday, the Justice Department orders Reason to provide a federal grand jury with "any and all identifying information" on the identities of commenters who mused about shooting federal judges and/or feeding them through a wood chipper.
A May 31 article on Reason's blog about the prosecution of Silk Road founder Ross "Dread Pirate Roberts" Ulbricht spurred the anonymous commenters' vitriol. Ulbricht pleaded for leniency, but a federal judge sentenced Ulbricht to life in prison without parole for setting up the illicit online drug market.
"It's judges like these that should be taken out back and shot," one Reason commenter wrote.
"It's judges like these that will be taken out back and shot," another responded.
"Why waste ammunition? Wood chippers get the message across clearly," a third wrote. "Especially if you feed them in feet first."
Another comment suggested shooting such judges on courthouse steps instead.
Other comments flagged by the Justice Department were less violent, such as one that wished for "a special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman."
In the subpoena, the Justice Department says it is seeking evidence regarding possible violations of federal laws against interstate threats.
The subpoena raises several First Amendment issues, such as whether the comments rise to the level of a "true threat" or are protected free speech. The Supreme Court recently ruled that "true threats" must be made with some knowledge or intent that the threat will be taken seriously.
Kimberly Chow, an attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the comments on Reason clearly fall within the internet's regular, if outrageous and often vile, discourse.
"In terms of the comments, everybody knows the internet is a forum where exaggeration and hyperbole take place," Chow told BuzzFeed News. "These comments are in that category. Nobody believes that these people are going to go and put this judge in a wood chipper."
Free speech advocates also worry that such subpoenas burden websites with significant legal costs and could have a chilling effect on speech. The subpoena also has specific implications for anonymous speech.
Kyu Youm, a professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and First Amendment scholar, called the Justice Department subpoena "a misplacement of priorities" in an interview with BuzzFeed News.
"Generally speaking, anonymity is still a part of freedom of expression, and just because the government wants to unmask the commenters does not mean it has a strong case," Youm said. "At least, if there is doubt as to the validity of the subpoena, anonymity should be given the benefit of the doubt."
"The subpoena is not compelling," Youm continued.
The Justice Department and Reason both declined requests for comment.