The chilling tactics of the Justice Department

DOJ pursues information on Trump opponents
DOJ pursues information on Trump opponents

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Story highlights

  • Jill Filipovic: Justice Department investigating protesters at Donald Trump's inauguration
  • She says it's not about law, but about making people afraid to oppose President publicly

Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and Nairobi, Kenya, and the author of the book "The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness." Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)In the same week that white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis were on the march in Charlottesville and Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed "vigorous" action, the Department of Justice has also been investigating another demonstration -- of protesters who exercised their First Amendment rights of free assembly at Donald Trump's inauguration in January. The Justice Department has demanded the company DreamHost turn over some 1.3 million IP addresses of people who visited a website coordinating Inauguration Day protests.

Jill Filipovic
So far the company has refused, and is challenging the subpoena in court. DreamHost is doing the right thing by refusing the department's demands and making those demands public.
But the broad request is itself a frightening insight into this administration's law enforcement priorities, and the chilling tactics it's willing to use to execute them.
    The Justice Department claims it needs the information stored by DreamHost because of a "violent riot" on Inauguration Day. There was of course no such thing. It is true that some out-of-control troublemakers damaged property, and six police officers were injured in the fray; that's unacceptable, and the idiots who used the day's protests as a pretext for violence or window-breaking should face penalties for any crimes they committed. But that's not in the same universe as the suggestion that an anti-Trump protest attended by thousands was a "violent riot" meriting the disclosure of private information of anyone who so much as clicked a link or expressed an interest in attending a protest.
    The goal here seems bigger than just figuring out who busted some windows. It's an attempt on the part of the Trump administration to stymie dissent. This isn't about enforcing the law; it's about making people afraid to publicly oppose this President, who craves adoration and throws tantrums when he doesn't get it.
    If a protest with fairly limited acts of violence -- violence the overwhelming majority of protesters did not partake in -- means that federal law enforcement can cast a wide dragnet to scoop up the information of more than 1 million people, then fewer people will protest (or even discuss doing so online). Perhaps that's what this President wants. But that's fundamentally un-American, and our courts shouldn't enable him.
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    While all of this is going on, the Justice Department is also not sleeping on other opportunities to pursue authoritarian priorities in its law enforcement efforts. It is rolling back Obama-era leniency efforts for nonviolent drug offenders, many of whom are not violent criminals but often addicts, or simply desperate. It is trying to undercut liberal cities' efforts to be safe sanctuaries for undocumented people. This latest move for IP addresses and other online information about protesters isn't a one-time misjudgment; it's part of a broad effort to squelch opposition and scapegoat minority groups in a bid to please the President.
    Donald Trump gets a lot of attention for his poor judgment, lack of impulse control and willingness to use his position to punish or humiliate perceived enemies. But he's not the only bad actor here. And when the institution charged with upholding the law is happily carrying out a deluded man's revenge fantasies against all those who question him, it's time to question -- and replace -- all of them.