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Twitter gives Occupy protester's tweets to U.S. judge

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Twitter handed over tweets from an Occupy Wall Street protester to a New York criminal judge on Friday after months of fighting a subpoena from prosecutors in a closely watched case pitting privacy and free speech advocates against law enforcement.

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators march through the streets during a protest against the rising national student debt, in New York, April 25, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Burton

The company surrendered the micro-blogging posts - an inch-high stack of paper inside a mailing envelope - to Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Matthew Sciarrino. They will remain under seal while a request for a stay by the protester, Malcolm Harris, is heard next week in a higher court.

Harris, 23, was one of hundreds arrested during a mass protest on the Brooklyn Bridge in October 2011. The Manhattan district attorney’s office wants the tweets, which are no longer available online, to try to undermine Harris’ argument that police officers appeared to lead protesters onto the bridge’s roadway only to arrest them for obstructing traffic.

Twitter and Harris had challenged the subpoena but Sciarrino rejected their arguments in June. Twitter has filed an appeal, which is scheduled to be heard in November.

The case involves a thorny legal question: whether Twitter users have the right to fight in court requests from law enforcement for their tweets.

Twitter had faced a Friday deadline to comply with the subpoena or face contempt and a heavy fine.

In court on Friday, the company’s lawyer asked the judge to consider keeping the files sealed until the appeals court rules, warning that its appeal could be deemed moot if prosecutors are already in possession of the records. But Sciarrino refused.

Sciarrino did, however, urge the appeals court to take up the question of when Twitter or its users can fight a subpoena, even though Twitter has yielded the tweets.

“I strongly encourage the appellate court ... to decide the case on the merits, as I too agree that this is a more important issue than maybe the trial itself,” Sciarrino said.

Harris’ lawyer, Martin Stolar, said he was disappointed that Twitter had handed over the messages but vowed to continue to challenge the subpoena.

“We’re not giving up the fight here,” he said following the court session, as Harris stood by his side.

In addition to Twitter’s appeal, Stolar has filed a civil action claiming the judge overstepped his authority in ordering the tweets handed over.

The surrender of Harris’ tweets comes as the Occupy movement prepares to mark its one-year anniversary next week.

Activists in the movement, which last fall sparked a national conversation about economic inequality and coined the catch phrase “We are the 99 percent,” aim to surround the New York Stock Exchange and stage a sit-in on Monday.

Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Bill Trott and Xavier Briand