NY protester with subpoenaed tweets pleads guilty

AP News
Posted: Dec 12, 2012 7:20 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — An Occupy Wall Street protester whose tweets were subpoenaed pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct on Wednesday in a case that became a clash over social media privacy.

Malcolm Harris, a writer and editor in his 20s, was sentenced to six days of community service. Defense attorney Martin Stolar said Harris wanted to plead guilty so he could focus on appealing a decision by the judge to hand over his Twitter messages to the prosecution.

"Malcolm believes that the Twitter issue is much more significant than this conviction on disorderly conduct," Stolar said.

The case became a hot topic among social media users and electronic-privacy advocates after prosecutors subpoenaed about three months of Harris' tweets. Harris, Twitter Inc. and some civil liberties and privacy groups unsuccessfully challenged the demand.

Prosecutors said Harris couldn't reasonably make privacy claims about a service he used to share his thoughts with the online world. Twitter turned the messages and his user information over in September, facing the possibility of being held in contempt of court if it refused.

Stolar said he and Harris will appeal the decision because it violated Harris' privacy and free association rights and threatened to set a precedent in other cases. He said personal information is stored differently now than it was years ago: Financial and personal details are increasingly being saved on computer servers and the online cloud, and it's wrong to circumvent the owner of the information and ask the operator of the computer equipment or service for the user's details.

"The law has not caught up with the technological change," Stolar said.

Harris was among more than 700 people arrested during a march on the Brooklyn Bridge in the early days of the Occupy movement against financial inequality and what protesters called corporate greed. Prosecutors have said Harris' tweets could cast doubt on his claim that he was unaware of the police orders he was charged with disregarding. The messages were initially posted publicly but had become inaccessible as newer ones crowded them out.

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On Wednesday, Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Lee Langston read in court some of the tweets that proved Harris was there.

"The police didn't lead us onto the bridge. They were backing up," read one.

"Sabotaging vital transportation arteries is never simply 'peaceful protest'" read another.

Disorderly conduct is a violation, not a crime. Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Matthew Sciarrino offered Harris a choice: three days of community service of the judge's choosing or six days of Harris' choosing.

Harris chose the latter.