A US federal appeals court has blocked the government from seeking search warrants for a website linked to the “fake news” phenomenon that spread through social media last year.
The ruling by the US 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Monday blocked the federal government from seizing the domain name and related IP address associated with the website.
The US government said it had filed a motion for summary judgment, which would allow it to use its power under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to seize the domain names of any person or entity whose information it finds is relevant to an ongoing investigation.
The court said that without a search warrant, the government’s seizure could have a “significant chilling effect” on freedom of speech and expression, including online news sites that use information obtained from the website for reporting purposes.
“If the government were to seize this information, the resulting chilling effect on free speech would be substantial,” Judge Amy Berman Jackson wrote for the court.
The news site, which was started in December 2017 by Alex Jones, was the most popular website of the so-called “alt-right” movement, a loose collection of far-right internet personalities that promoted conspiracy theories about a global conspiracy.
Jones was arrested in December on charges of inciting hatred and making false statements against the president.
He was freed on bail in February, after an immigration judge ordered him to undergo mental health evaluation.
But the Trump administration said in March that it was not going to grant Jones bail, citing the Trump’s ban on refugees and people from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
The government also argued that it did not have a valid reason for seeking a search of the domain, and the website was “not connected to any government entity”.
The case was brought by a local Texas attorney and a civil rights lawyer who sued the Trump team for interfering with the press and civil liberties of the people of Texas.
The lawsuit was filed by former Texas state senator and Democratic presidential candidate Wendy Davis, who is also the wife of the state’s attorney general.