State insisting it be given info on Twitter users

By Kolten Parker, Eva Ruth Moravec
San Antonio Express-News
Originally published July 31, 2013

AUSTIN — State police have demanded Twitter records from two users that officials allege made “terroristic threats” against lawmakers who pushed for abortion restrictions.

One targeted user, Denise Romano, an Austin woman with a private Twitter account, explains on her page that posts are “satirical.” The second user’s account is anonymous and was unused for more than a year before a string of tweets specified in the Texas Department of Public Safety probe.

In what appears to be an unprecedented move in Texas, law enforcement officials subpoenaed the Twitter users’ information in a criminal investigation.

“I haven’t heard of a tweet being used for the basis of a criminal case,” said Paul Watler, a Dallas-based First Amendment lawyer and a former president of the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation.

“There’s lots of open questions here,” Watler said of the DPS probe. “Our law does recognize the right of anonymous speech, but that does not give a person (the right) to anonymously violate criminal laws.”

DPS agent Jason McMurray submitted the order requesting names, emails and addresses, activation date, payment information and IP addresses for @prisonforbush and @deniseromano on July 17-July 19.

Gov. Rick Perry signed the omnibus abortion bill that limits the procedure after 20 weeks and raises standards for providers July 18.

McMurray didn’t return requests for comment Wednesday. A DPS official said the agency “does not discuss law enforcement sensitive information.”

The account @prisonforbush is anonymous. The user posted about 40 tweets July 18 after more than a year of inactivity, including death, torture and crucifixion threats. Some mentioned Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and former President George W. Bush.

Denise Romano’s account, @deniseromano, is private and only allows confirmed followers to view posts.

According to a website listed on her Twitter profile, Romano has lived in Austin since 2012 and has a “respiratory condition” that “interferes with my ability to breathe and speak.”

“I tweet and post on Facebook because it’s the only way I can be politically active given my physical limitations,” she writes, adding that she often uses “satire” when tweeting.

On July 18, she tweeted: “Should we execute Perry by lethal injection or stoning for all he’s killed.”

Romano would not comment for this article but in a post about the subpoena, she questioned why DPS would target her account. She said she has contacted an attorney.

Heated debate about Texas’ new abortion laws spread fast and at times invoked furious outbursts from social media and from protesters gathered at the Capitol.

Though mostly peaceful demonstrations were reported, DPS officers made several arrests from unruly spectators in the Senate gallery and the Capitol rotunda.

Protesters shouted so loudly during the first scheduled vote on the bill that senators weren’t able to proceed, following an 11-hour filibuster by Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis that temporarily derailed the legislation. They were quickly admonished by supporters of the bill.

Dewhurst described the protesters as an “unruly mob.” State Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, went a step further.

“We had terrorist (sic) in the Texas State Senate opposing SB 5” he tweeted on the night of Davis’ filibuster.

Zedler’s office declined to comment on the alleged threats and subpoenas.
Kristen Vander-Plas, a law student at Texas Tech and a former legislative director for College Republicans, said the users’ tweets “made me nervous,” and she reported them to Texas Rangers and Perry’s office.

“With all of the anger and violence surrounding this session, seeing threats against Gov. Perry and Lt. Gov Dewhurst made me think there might be something to them,” she said.

Watler said that in order for a terroristic threat charge to stick, the threat would have to be enough for a reasonable person to fear imminent personal harm. It’s unclear exactly which Tweets are under investigation.

“I would question whether a reasonable person would seriously take this as intent to invoke physical harm,” he said of @prisonforbush’s posts. “Just the fact that it would offend a reasonable person isn’t enough to limit it — the user may say that it was merely hyperbolic and wasn’t meant literally, and therefore it would fall to the side of free speech.”

Twitter’s guidelines for law enforcement state that users’ information will not be released without legal process, and users will be notified when their personal information is requested.