Updated: 5:33 p.m.
A Twitter user who allegedly threatened a Republican presidential candidate cannot hide behind his anonymous account on the popular social networking and microblogging service, a federal judge in Washington said in a ruling unsealed today.
Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of Washington's federal trial court said in the decision (PDF) that prosecutors have “a compelling interest” in pursuing the government’s criminal investigation and that the identity of the Twitter user must therefore be divulged to a grand jury.
The Twitter user’s account name was not published in the judge’s opinion, which was released after the government closed its investigation.
The person, identified in court papers as “Mr. X,” asked Lamberth to quash a subpoena issued to Twitter in August to acquire “any and all records pertaining to the identity” of the user.
Before Twitter complied with the subpoena, the judge said, the man revealed his identity to federal agents and voluntarily appeared for an interview. The man, the Lamberth said, agreed to do so in return that the government not contact his family, neighbors and employer.
Lamberth said in his ruling, first issued in December, that the investigation arose out of the person’s “professed desire to engage in sadomasochistic activities” with Rep. Michele Bachmann. The Twitter user said he wanted to use a Vietnam era machete in a sexual act.
At the time, Bachmann was a Republican candidate vying for the presidency. She suspended her bid in January.
Lamberth spent part of his ruling assessing the Twitter account that is the centerpiece of the grand jury subpoena. The person’s tweets, the judge said, are “extremely crude and in almost incomprehensibly poor taste.”
“More offensive even than Mr. X’s chosen vocabulary is the pathetic transparency and vapidity of his attempt to elicit the attention on the Internet that he surely lacks in real life,” the judge said.
Lamberth expressed doubt about the possibility of criminal charges, saying “there appears to be nothing serious whatsoever about Mr. X’s Twitter page, except perhaps the severity of mental depravity that would lead a person to produce such posts.”
Still, Lamberth said, the person’s motion challenged a subpoena, not an indictment. Prosecutors, the judge said, have the right to try to convince grand jurors that the Twitter user committed a crime.
“The government must take seriously all threats against a major presidential candidate such as Ms. Bachmann, unless and until it is satisfied that there is no likelihood that the threat was legitimate,” Lamberth said.
Lamberth said his conclusion that the Twitter user cannot remain anonymous is "nowhere near" the slippery slope that would allow the government to unmask any anonymous user on any web site.
"Here, an individual has made a statement that threatens an established candidate for the presidential nomination of one of our two major political parties, and the government has a strong public interest in investigating that threat, however outlandish," Lamberth wrote.