The New York Court of Appeals denied Nonparty Twitter, Inc.’s appeal in People v Harris as “academic” and moot, because the Tweets in question had been produced pursuant to the State’s subpoenas. New York v. Harris, 2013 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 2039 (N.Y. Misc. 2013).
The case involved the prosecution of an Occupy Wall Street protestor and the DA’s subpoena to obtain the Defendant’s Tweets.
The Tweets were relevant to an anticipated Defense argument that the police forced the protestors onto the non-pedestrian part of the Brooklyn Bridge, instead showing it was planned by the protestors. People v Harris, 36 Misc. 3d 868, 876 (N.Y. City Crim. Ct. 2012).
Twitter actually changed their Terms of Service after the first ruling in the case over whether the Defendant had standing to challenge the subpoena, based on who “owned” the user’s Tweets. People v Harris, at *872.
Judge Matthew Sciarrino’s order has wonderful statements on modern litigation involving social media. Here are selected of highlights from his June 30, 2012 order:
If you post a tweet, just like if you scream it out the window, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. There is no proprietary interest in your tweets, which you have now gifted to the world. This is not the same as a private email, a private direct message, a private chat, or any of the other readily available ways to have a private conversation via the internet that now exist. Those private dialogues would require a warrant based on probable cause in order to access the relevant information.
People v Harris, 36 Misc. 3d 868, 874 (N.Y. City Crim. Ct. 2012).
In dealing with social media issues, judges are asked to make decisions based on statutes that can never keep up with technology. In some cases, those same judges have no understanding of the technology themselves (Stephanie Rabiner, Esq., Technologist, Do Judges Really Understand Social Media? http://blogs.findlaw.com/technologist/2012/05/do-judges-really-understand-social-media.html [May 9, 2012]). Judges must then do what they have always done – balance the arguments on the scales of justice. They must weigh the interests of society against the inalienable rights of the individual who gave away some rights when entering into the social contract that created our government and the laws that we have agreed to follow. Therefore, while the law regarding social media is clearly still developing, it can neither be said that this court does not understand or appreciate the place that social media has in our society nor that it does not appreciate the importance of this ruling and future rulings of courts that may agree or disagree with this decision. In recent years, social media has become one of the most prominent methods of exercising free speech, particularly in countries that do not have very many freedoms at all.
People v Harris, at *877-878.
As the laws, rules and societal norms evolve and change with each new advance in technology, so too will the decisions of our courts. While the U.S. Constitution clearly did not take into consideration any tweets by our founding fathers, it is probably safe to assume that Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson would have loved to tweet their opinions as much as they loved to write for the newspapers of their day (sometimes under anonymous pseudonyms similar to today’s twitter user names). Those men, and countless soldiers in service to this nation, have risked their lives for our right to tweet or to post an article on Facebook; but that is not the same as arguing that those public tweets are protected. The Constitution gives you the right to post, but as numerous people have learned, there are still consequences for your public posts. What you give to the public belongs to the public. What you keep to yourself belongs only to you.
People v Harris, 878.
Bow Tie Thoughts
Just as a person’s eyes are a window to their soul, social media is a window into statements of future intent, state of mind and party admissions.
The evidence issues in social media can become complex, from “checking in” at location on a social media app being a present sense impression to layered hearsay with a video of a witness recorded on a smartphone at an incident, then shared by another declarant on their social media profile. Each declarant made an out-of-court statement that if offered in court would have to meet an exception to the hearsay rule (or somehow be non-hearsay).
The battle in most civil and criminal cases is not that social media is relevant, but what social media is relevant. A party cannot simply request a person’s entire social media profile. The entire profile is simply not likely to be relevant. It also smacks of an invasive fishing expedition. Moreover, who actually wants to read every status message from a person over a period of years?
The issue for many litigants is requesting specific postings over a set period of time, or a defined topic, or communications with others made over a posting. In effect, the requests must be narrowly tailored and relevant.
Josh Gilliland is a California attorney who focuses his practice on eDiscovery. Josh is the co-creator of The Legal Geeks, which has made the ABA Journal Top Blawg 100 Blawg from 2013 to 2016, the Web 100 from 2017 to 2018, and was nominated for Best Podcast for the 2015 Geekie Awards. Josh has presented at legal conferences and comic book conventions across the United States. He also ties a mean bow tie.