Two Portland LGBT activists got an alarming email in their Google mail inbox this month—their “customer information” (including any name, home address, phone numbers, and billing info) had been subpoenaed by the Alliance Defense Fund, a right-wing Christian nonprofit. Google, along with several other email providers nationwide, was ordered to hand over the activists’ personal info in conjunction with a major lawsuit a Michigan megachurch is filing against queer group Bash Back.

“This really feels like an invasion of privacy, an invasion of my life,” says Portlander Oliver Hayes, who received an email with the attached subpoena to be filled by March 16th. “It's something that just happened because I'm a queer activist, because I'm a queer person. And that, in my opinion, is a very bad reason to track me down.”

It likely comes as a shock that courts can snag your personal info from email accounts. Under federal law, the courts can’t go rifling through email inboxes. But everything that’s not “content” in your email account can be subpoenaed.

Hayes and Kat Enyeart started a Facebook page to spread the news of their subpoenas. Hayes says he was not at the protest that sparked the church’s lawsuit (and has never even set foot in Michigan) but that in 2008 he received an email from a listserv that discussed the protest.

Bashing Back! A photo of the Mount Hope Church protest from 2008.
  • Bashing Back! A photo of the Mount Hope Church protest from 2008.

The protest was controversial: In November 2008, about 20 Bash Back activists disrupted a Sunday service at the conservative Mount Hope Church in Lansing Michigan. The group pulled a fire alarm, made out in front of the congregation, chanted “Jesus was a homo”, and dropped a rainbow banner from the church balcony reading, “It’s okay to be gay!” A few months later, the church sued Bash Back under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances act, ironically a law that was intended to protect access to abortion clinics but also protects “places of worship” from intimidation and inference. Here's a copy of their initial lawsuit and the subpoena (pdf) that Hayes and Enyeart were made aware of this month.

The suit names 15 Midwestern activists, but the church and Alliance Defense Fund are trying to pin down 20 John and Jane Does who may have advertised, supported, or planned the protest. During the past year, the right-wing groups have subpoenaed identifying information from dozens of email addresses, says Bash Back’s lawyer, Mark Sniderman.
The church group also successfully subpoenaed (pdf) Lansing's local alt weekly, City Pulse, for emails containing identifying information about some protesters.

Though Google won’t comment on this specific case, Sniderman says the only email provider to fight to subpoena is Riseup.net. If a judge finds the subpoena is valid, even Riseup, a Seattle-based collective that promotes “self-determination by controlling our own secure means of communications”, will have to turn over the personal info of its seven users facing the church’s subpoena or face contempt of court charges.

For Google's part, spokesman Brian Richardson explains their subpoena policy via email: "When we receive a subpoena or court order, we check to see if it meets both the letter and the spirit of the law before complying. And if it doesn't we can object or ask that the request is narrowed." If it won't compromise a case, they alert the affected users of the subpoena. Then it's on those users to challenge the subpoena in court if they want to.

For now, Hayes is waiting anxiously to see what happens. “These aren't people I feel safe around, them having my personal information is something I’m afraid of,” says Hayes. “At this point, what we're making sure is that a lot of people are watching this unfold with us.