Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A First Amendment Right to Anonymity?

Orin Kerr reports about such a ruling:
Federal prosecutors have withdrawn a subpoena seeking the identities of thousands of people who bought used books through online retailer Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN), newly unsealed court records show.

The withdrawal came after a judge ruled the customers have a First Amendment right to keep their reading habits from the government.
Lest you think that the feds were merely poking around for the fun of it, read on:
Federal prosecutors issued the subpoena last year as part of a grand jury investigation into a former Madison official who was a prolific seller of used books on Amazon.com. They were looking for buyers who could be witnesses in the case.

The official, Robert D'Angelo, was indicted last month on fraud, money laundering and tax evasion charges. Prosecutors said he ran a used book business out of his city office and did not report the income. He has pleaded not guilty.

D'Angelo sold books through the Amazon Marketplace feature, and buyers paid Amazon, which took a commission.

"We didn't care about the content of what anybody read. We just wanted to know what these business transactions were," prosecutor Vaudreuil said Tuesday. "These were simply business records we were seeking to prove the case of fraud and tax crimes against Mr. D'Angelo."
Orin's comment:
I don't think I've ever heard of a First Amendment right to anonymity trumping a grand jury subpoena obtained in a criminal case. The general rule is that if the grand jury issues a subpoena, there's no third party right to assert a First Amendment interest of others against the grand jury subpoena.
I agree with Orin. In my post, "Privacy: Variations on the Theme of Liberty," I say:
It is sometimes necessary for government to intrude on privacy for the sake of liberty. If, for example, the punishment of crime fosters the security of life, limb, and property by deterring yet more crime, then liberty is served by certain types of governmental intrusion on privacy (e.g., searches of private property, questioning of suspects and witnesses, and compulsion of testimony in criminal cases).
Those who rush to defend privacy at all costs have put privacy ahead of liberty on their scale of values. (Anarcho-libertarians do much the same thing when they treat the non-aggression principle as the be-all-and-end-all of libertarianism.)

Privacy is important. It is, as I say in "Privacy: Variations on the Theme of Liberty,"
one among many values that liberty should serve. An individual's desire for privacy is as legitimate as a desire for, say, a Lamborghini, a full head of hair, and perpetual youth. Seriously, privacy is a legitimate pursuit, yet (like a Lamborghini) it cannot an absolute right. For -- as I have argued elsewhere -- if privacy were an absolute right, it would be possible to get away with murder in one's home simply by committing murder there.
The judge in the D'Angelo case hasn't abetted murder, but he may be abetting tax evasion. Thanks a lot, judge.