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Case Name Twitter v. Sessions NS-CA-0013
Docket / Court 4:14-cv-4480 ( N.D. Cal. )
State/Territory California
Case Type(s) National Security
Special Collection Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act -- All Matters
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act -- Foreign Targeting (702, 703, 704)
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act -- Internet Metadata
Case Summary
[Note: This case was previously known as Twitter v. Holder, then Twitter v. Lynch.]

On October 7, 2014, Twitter -- an online social networking service -- filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California against the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and ... read more >
[Note: This case was previously known as Twitter v. Holder, then Twitter v. Lynch.]

On October 7, 2014, Twitter -- an online social networking service -- filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California against the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), under the Administrative Procedure Act. Twitter, represented by private counsel, asked the court for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief, alleging that nondisclosure provisions set forth in a letter from the Deputy Attorney General ("the DAG Letter") and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) secrecy provisions were unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Twitter also contended that the review mechanisms for seeking to modify the nondisclosure provisions violate the separation of power principles.

The FBI issues National Security Letters ("NSLs") to communication providers, compelling them to disclose information deemed relevant for protecting against terrorism. The FBI also issues FISA orders that permit surveillance or disclosure of stored records. Recipients of a NSL or a FISA order are restricted from disclosing information of that order.

In 2013, in response to these restrictions, five communication providers (including Google and Facebook) filed a lawsuit to relax restrictions for publishing information such as the total number of requests and user accounts encompassed by such requests. In January 2014, the DOJ and the five providers settled. Two preapproved disclosure formats were set forth in the DAG Letter, which was dated January 27, 2014.

Twitter, the plaintiff in this case, had a practice of releasing transparency reports that listed the number of requests from the government for account information and content removal, and how Twitter responded to such requests. At the time of the complaint, the reports did not contain information regarding NSL and FISA orders. On January 29, 2014, the plaintiff met with the defendants and sought confirmation that the DAG Letter (of January 27, 2014) did not apply to the plaintiff. Subsequently, the plaintiff submitted a draft report to the FBI seeking prepublication review; the draft included numeric information of NSL and FISA orders received. The FBI denied prepublication on a basis that the contained information exceeded the scope set forth in the DAG Letter. This first amendment lawsuit ensued.

On October 17, 2014, the government declined to proceed before a magistrate judge, and the case was subsequently reassigned to District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers on October 20, 2014.

On January 9, 2015, the government filed a partial motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim. The government argued that: 1. The court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the plaintiffs failed to establish an injury-in-fact and therefore lacked standing, and because the DAG Letter did not constitute a final agency act under the Administrative Procedure Act; 2. FISA challenges should instead have been considered by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court; and 3. The Plaintiff's separation of powers challenge to the disclosure review mechanisms failed as a matter of law because deference to the Executive was entirely appropriate in this context.

In February 2015, a number of popular digital media organizations filed amici briefs on behalf of Twitter, including Buzzfeed, National Public Radio, and Reddit.

A hearing was held on the government’s motion to dismiss on May 5, 2015, but before Judge Rogers could rule, the defendants notified her in June 2015 of the passage of the USA Freedom Act. The USA Freedom Act reauthorized portions of the USA Patriot Act, but eliminated the Patriot Act’s bulk data collection provisions. Notably for this case, the Act added options for those who had been subject to NSL or FISA orders to publicly report information about orders received, and amended the judicial review process for NSL nondisclosure requirements.

Judge Rogers subsequently called for briefings on the impact of the Act on the pending partial motion for summary judgment and on the case as a whole. The plaintiff argued that the legislative changes did not affect the defendant's pending partial motion to dismiss, should not affect Twitter’s APA or First Amendment claims, and changed, but did not moot, its First Amendment and separation of powers claim. The government argued that passage of the Act made the plaintiff's Administrative Procedure Act and First Amendment challenges moot, and that the Act reinforced the constitutionality of the NSL statutes.

On October 14, 2015, after receiving all supplemental briefs, the Judge Rogers dismissed the government’s motion to dismiss as moot and ordered Twitter to file an amended complaint in light of the changes under the USA Freedom Act. 139 F.Supp.3d 1075. Twitter filed its amended complaint on November 13, 2015. In light of the new legislation, Twitter sought declaratory judgment and a permanent injunction, arguing that the non-disclosure provisions of FISA were unconstitutional on their fact, that the government’s actions showed a pattern of “informal, overly expansive, delayed and conflicting” actions that had a chilling effect on speech and limited Twitter’s first amendment rights. It also argued that the Espionage Act was unconstitutional as applied to Twitter, and sought declaratory relief to that effect, expressing its concern that Twitter would be prosecuted under the Espionage Act should it choose to publish its Transparency Report.

The government filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint on January 15, 2016. It argued that the court should dismiss the FISA claims in the interest of comity, that Twitter failed to establish standing with respect to its Espionage Act claims, and that all of Twitter’s claims should fail as a matter of law since the government may lawfully restrict disclosure of classified information.

On May 2, 2016, Judge Rogers granted the motion in part and denied it in part. Judge Rogers denied the motion to dismiss on the grounds of comity and concluded that Twitter had standing under the Espionage Act, but had not sufficiently plead its First Amendment claims. 183 F.Supp.3d 1007. Three weeks later, Twitter filed a second amended complaint. In it, Twitter alleged an implied cause of action under the First Amendment and a cause of action under the Administrative Procedure Act. Twitter claimed that the information it sought to disclose was improperly classified, and that the government failed to specify which specific information in its report could not be published.

On November 22, 2016, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. It was denied without prejudice on July 6, 2017. The government filed a motion to reconsider on September 5, 2017, which Judge Rogers denied on November 28, 2017. The case is still pending as of February 2018.

David Cho - 10/26/2014
Alexandra Gilewicz - 02/12/2018

compress summary

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Issues and Causes of Action
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Constitutional Clause
Freedom of speech/association
Records Disclosure
Terrorism/Post 9-11 issues
Plaintiff Type
Private Plaintiff
Type of Facility
Causes of Action Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. §§ 551 et seq.
Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201
Defendant(s) U.S. Department of Justice
Plaintiff Description Twitter, a global information sharing and distribution network
Class action status sought No
Class action status granted No
Prevailing Party None Yet / None
Public Int. Lawyer No
Nature of Relief None yet
Source of Relief None yet
Case Ongoing Yes
3:14-cv-4480 (N.D. Cal.)
NS-CA-0013-9000.pdf | Detail
Date: 10/19/2017
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
General Documents
Complaint for Declaratory Judgment
NS-CA-0013-0001.pdf | External Link | Detail
Date: 10/07/2014
Reporter's Transcript of Proceedings [ECF# 33]
NS-CA-0013-0002.pdf | Detail
Date: 01/26/2015
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Brief of Amicus Curiae Freedom of the Press Foundation in Support of Plaintiffs' Opposition to Defendants' Partial Motion to Dismiss [ECF# 52-1]
NS-CA-0013-0003.pdf | Detail
Date: 02/17/2015
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Judges Corley, Jacqueline Scott (N.D. Cal.) [Magistrate]
Rogers, Yvonne Gonzalez (N.D. Cal.)
Plaintiff's Lawyers Berlin, Hayley L. (District of Columbia)
NS-CA-0013-0001 | NS-CA-0013-9000
Miller, Eric David (Washington)
NS-CA-0013-0001 | NS-CA-0013-9000
Snell, James (California)
NS-CA-0013-0001 | NS-CA-0013-0002 | NS-CA-0013-9000
Sussmann, Michael A. (District of Columbia)
NS-CA-0013-0001 | NS-CA-0013-0002 | NS-CA-0013-9000
Defendant's Lawyers Berman, Julia Alexandra (District of Columbia)
Bressler, Steven Y. (District of Columbia)
Other Lawyers Gratz, Joseph C (California)

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