The Department of Justice originally sought Facebook information from the two individuals' accounts and the DisruptJ20 page, including all private messages, friend lists, status updates, comments, photos, video and other information that would otherwise be considered private on the social network. The American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia had argued the warrants for their Facebook data were overbroad and that prosecutors shouldn't have broad access to account data that may include sensitive and personal information unrelated to the criminal investigation.
The warrant centers around a Facebook accounts of two D.C. -based protesters and a Facebook page for DisruptJ20, an organization created by group of activists who were attempting to build "the framework needed for mass protests to shut down the inauguration of Donald Trump and planning widespread direct actions to make that happen".
The judge ordered Facebook to redact the identities of about 6,000 people who liked or followed the DisruptJ20 Facebook page and to limit the production of photographs.
The Department of Justice initially demanded the disclosure of all files associated with DisruptJ20.org, the contents of email accounts for those associated with the site, contact and billing information the person who registered the site and the IP addresses of visitors to the site. The court didn't bend to all of the ACLU's requests mentioned in the suit, however - most crucially, that a neutral third party be appointed to review all material and prevent the government from receiving information "irrelevant" to the investigation.
"The risk for disclosure of private political speech and association go innocent persons to the government can not be ignored and therefore additional protections are necessary", Mr Morin wrote, adding that "the Warrants in their execution may intrude upon the lawful and otherwise innocuous online expression of innocent users". "Therefore, the court deems it appropriate in this case to implement procedural safeguards to preserve the First Amendment and Fourth Amendment freedoms at stake and ensure that only data containing potential incriminating evidence is disclosed to the government".
Morin wrote that the government established probable cause to access information about the two individual accountholders - Legba Carrefour and Lacy MacAuley - and if any personal information was "intermingled" with potential evidence, that was the effect of their decision to store data with Facebook, a third-party company.
"The court agreed to impose safeguards to protect political activity and third-party communications from government snooping, but was not equally careful to protect our clients' private and personal communications", said ACLU of DC attorney Scott Michelman in a statement. The judge said he was trying to balance individual rights to private online expression with the governments ability to prosecute criminals.
"Our clients, who have not been charged with any crime, expect that when they send private Facebook messages about, for instance, their medical history or traumatic events in their lives, those messages will remain private unless the government shows probable cause to search those particular messages, which it has not done", Mr Michelman said. However, the court denied the individual account holders' motion to intervene formally in the case to challenge the warrants targeting their Facebook accounts and the page.
A court in Washington, D.C., has moved to limit the scope of search warrants obtained by federal investigators for Facebook data in connection with an ongoing investigation into criminal rioting on Inauguration Day.
The office of the US attorney for D.C. had no comment on the ruling. The first jury trial is scheduled to begin later this week, and more trials - the defendants are being tried in small groups - are scheduled throughout 2018.