Matt Toups, a Carnegie Mellon University undergraduate, was set to drive on Aug. 25 from Pittsburgh to New York City a few days before the protests leading up to the Republican National Convention. For more than two years he's been involved with Pittsburgh's Indymedia site (www.indypgh.org), open to anyone wanting to publish news and commentary, generally on progressive causes -- as has this reporter. In New York, Toups was set to be one of four NYC Indymedia system administrators -- the only one working from the city that week. The New York site would have breaking news coverage from the convention protests all week.
But just before he was able to drive off, his job got a little more complicated.
"I'm not sure when we're going to leave now," he said, standing in his Oakland apartment. "Apparently I'm being investigated by the Secret Service ..."
An anonymous NYC Indymedia post on Aug. 18 had provided the names and home addresses of Republican convention delegates and pinpointed the local hotel for each. The post contained no threats or calls for actions, saying "anti-RNC groups" should use the information "in whatever way they see fit" -- perhaps to "facilitate making local connections. Many of these delegates are involved in politics and business on a town or county level."
Such information on the delegates, who were elected in their home states' primaries, is publicly available on many Republican Web sites. The New York Times had published a map of delegate hotels before the convention.
But on Aug. 19, according to American Civil Liberties Union Spokesperson Emily Whitfield, the United States Secret Service phoned Nicholas Merrill, president of Calyx Internet Access, the Internet service provider for NYC Indymedia. They asked Merrill for the names, contact information and billing records of those running the site, as well as any Web logs for the post with the delegates' information. Merrill, according to Whitfield, asked for a subpoena first.
On August 20, Merrill was ordered to appear before a Grand Jury to testify about an alleged violation of laws against voter intimidation.
Calyx, hosting NYC Indymedia site for free, does not log contributor's Internet addresses, so it had no more information to give the Secret Service than its sys-admin email addresses. All four sys-admins allowed this information to be released.
"They had nothing to hide," says the ACLU's Whitfield. "The post to Indymedia was clearly political speech, clearly not threatening and clearly not inciting violence."
Toups, as the lone sys-admin in the city, ended up as NYC Indymedia's media spokesperson about the case. "We're trying to create a space that's safe for dissent and to do that we protect people's anonymity," he says "We do have standards about illegal content and threats and we have policies to deal with that." He compares Indymedia's anonymity policy with that of professional journalists who protect the identity of their confidential sources.
One source The New York Times protected -- a senior Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity -- told them, "When you're confronted with something like this, you can't just ignore it. I think people would expect us to look into it and find out whether there is anything going on here that goes beyond the bounds of free speech."
The government has since responded to the ACLU's letter by saying that Merrill no longer had to appear before the Grand Jury, although technically the investigation is still underway.