The Justice Department Helped A State Prosecutor Target Facebook Records Of Anti-Pipeline Activists

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BY: Simon Davis-Cohen 01.16.18

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Nine months after pipeline opponents in Washington state staged a protest that blocked freeway traffic, Facebook ended a protracted legal standoff with a county prosecutor, turning over detailed records on the indigenous-led group behind the demonstration. Despite the fact that no criminal charges have been filed in connection with the February action, Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney David McEachran repeatedly sought a warrant for the group’s Facebook page, ultimately securing private information including messages to and from the page and a list of everyone “invited” to the protest event.

McEachran’s first two warrant applications were withdrawn after the American Civil Liberties Union and Facebook raised objections. On the third try, however, the warrant was granted thanks to Facebook’s suggestion that McEachran’s office seek formal guidance from the nation’s top law enforcement agency, the Department of Justice. A public records request filed by The Intercept shows that the local agency and its federal counterpart cooperated to draft the ultimately successful warrant using a DOJ template.

Activists affiliated with the climate justice group, Red Line Salish Sea, view the investigation as retaliation for their February protest, a march against local fossil fuel projects and President Donald Trump’s executive orders expediting construction of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines. “Not only does this warrant attempt to scare people from organizing, this warrant attempts to scare people from even looking at information,” Tina McKim, a former administrator of Red Line’s Facebook page, wrote in a declaration.

The DOJ’s intervention in the case makes it the latest example of the Trump administration’s direct involvement in law enforcement actions against protesters who allege they are being targeted for protected First Amendment activity: On the other side of the country, the DOJ is pursuing decades of prison time for protesters, journalists, medics, and legal advocates arrested during the anti-Trump “J20” demonstrations on Inauguration Day. In that case, too, the prosecution secured warrants for the Facebook page and website used to organize the protests. Now, Standing Rock-inspired activists in Whatcom County find themselves on the front lines of the battle over Americans’ right to anonymously organize with political groups.

The case began on February 11, three weeks after Trump took office. Red Line Salish Sea, formerly known as the Bellingham NoDAPL Coalition, organized a march to oppose Trump’s executive orders as well as proposed fuel export facilities in the Pacific Northwest. (The group’s name refers to the Salish Sea, which extends from Olympia, Washington, into Canada; activists consider the region a red line that new fossil fuel expansion should not cross.) About 100 protesters eventually made their way to Interstate 5, where they slowly brought traffic to a stop. Though the protest blocked traffic for an hour, no arrests were made and demonstrators were allowed to peacefully disperse.