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Feds want to unmask internet commenters writing about the Silk Road trial judge

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Do the comments constitute a true threat?

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Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht has already been sentenced to life in prison, but the fallout from the trial continues: the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York now wants to know the identities of people anonymously commenting on the judge in the trial.

Subpoena demands "any and all identifying information" on commenters

A grand jury subpoena, obtained by Ken White of the law blog Popehat, demands that libertarian news magazine Reason hand over "any and all identifying information" about certain commenters posting on an article published May 31st, "Silk Road Trial: Read Ross Ulbricht's Haunting Sentencing Letter to Judge."

The comments are vile. One suggests "[it's] judges like these that should be taken out back and shot." Another says, "I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman." But the subpoena cites a law against "interstate threats" as the reason for demanding the information, which the Supreme Court very recently decided must include real intent.

As White points out, the comments — repugnant as they are — may very well not constitute a true threat, as they aren't directed at the judge and don't detail any real plans for violence. The kicker: although it's possible to fight the subpoena, precedent suggests the US Attorney's office may have the power to obtain the information anyway.

However the situation shakes out, this isn't nearly the first fight over commenter anonymity and the First Amendment, and certainly won't be the last.