ACLU Challenges Warrant to Search Facebook Page of Group Engaged in Protests Against Dakota Access Pipeline

News Release: 
Wednesday, March 8, 2017
The ACLU today filed a motion to quash a warrant issued to police to search a Facebook community page for a broad range of information about a Bellingham, Washington, group engaged in protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline and advocating for environmental justice. The warrant served on Facebook seeks private, sensitive information about people’s political views and opinions, images of political actions, and personal information, including locations.

The Bellingham #NODAPL Coalition’s Facebook page gives information and updates on protests of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline, which is intended to carry North Dakota oil to Illinois. The Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes argue the pipeline threatens drinking water and cultural sites, and a broad-based coalition of opponents, NODAPL, have staged protests across the nation. The ACLU provided legal observers and supported the protesters in Standing Rock, who were the victims of excessive police force.

“The warrant at issue here is deeply problematic and runs afoul of constitutional protections.  Political speech and the freedom to engage in political activity without being subjected to undue government scrutiny are at the heart of the First Amendment,” said La Rond Baker, staff attorney at the ACLU of Washington. “Further, the Fourth Amendment prohibits the government from performing broad fishing expeditions into private affairs. And seizing information from Facebook accounts simply because they are associated with protests of the government violates these core constitutional principles.” 

The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Department obtained a search warrant seeking not only private information about the NoDAPL group’s political activity as encapsulated on its Facebook page,, but also data related to an unknown number of people who merely interacted with the group via Facebook at some point during the 12 days covered by the warrant, a timeframe that includes a NoDAPL protest of the Trump Administration’s actions regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The First Amendment protects political speech, the right to receive information, and the right to associate with others to engage in political speech and advocacy without government monitoring or interference. When warrants target speech and activity protected by the First Amendment, the motion argues, courts must apply a heightened level of scrutiny in evaluating their legality. The ACLU challenges this warrant as an unlawful intrusion on all of these rights and asserts that upholding such a warrant would have a chilling effect on protected speech.

The ACLU says that the warrant also fails to meet the basic requirement under the Fourth Amendment that warrants be particularized, meaning that they must describe in detail items for which the government has probable cause to search. This requirement ensures government cannot rummage through someone’s personal effects. Further, when searches involve broad intrusions, such as searches of computers or electronic accounts like Facebook, the need for such limitations on warrants is especially great, courts have found. Although the Founders had neither Facebook nor the internet, they would immediately recognize that the activity and speech at issue here is constitutionally protected.   

“Overbroad warrants like this one have far-reaching implications,” said Brett Max Kaufman, a staff attorney in the ACLU’s Center for Democracy in New York. “Government requests for information protected by the First Amendment must meet a high bar in order to ensure that political speech and advocacy are not chilled. The Constitution gives wide berth to that kind of civic participation, and law enforcement must respect that space in carrying out its activities.”

A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Tuesday, March 14 at 8:30 am in Whatcom Superior Court.