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Criminal Law

Flash Mobs Are Not Crimes

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer.  This blog should not be viewed as legal advice.  It is simply my experiences, opinions, and information I looked up on the internet.

It appears the term “flash mob” is being used inappropriately and its meaning is being overly broadened to include any group activity that is coordinated using social media.  This year, there have been several robberies and assaults perpetrated by a group of people that appear (at least on the surface) to have been orchestrated via social media sites.  The media has called them “flash mob crimes.”  They make it sound like someone created a Facebook event that said, “Meet at Broadway and Main at 10pm.  At exactly 10:03, we’re all going to run into the minimart, grab whatever we want, and run out.”  That’s not a flash mob.  That’s solicitation and possibly conspiracy.  If the event actually occurs, it’s larceny and perhaps inciting a riot.

Improv AZ - Where's Waldo Flash Mob Photo by Jeff Moriarty

A flash mob is defined as “a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and sometimes seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then disperse, often for the purposes of entertainment and/or satire.”  Flash mobs have been occurring at least since the 1970’s.  In recent years, they have been orchestrated via email and social media websites; however, that does not mean that every public group activity that is coordinated via social media is a flash mob.

Flash mobs are generally light-hearted innocuous fun.  People who participate in flash mobs ride public transportation without their pants; they welcome back strangers at the airport; they have fake battles between heroes and villains; and they stand frozen in place for short periods of time.  Some protests and promotional events are referred to as “flash mobs,” but technically they’re not.  And any event that has a criminal intent is definitely not a flash mob.

I give the media some leeway when it comes to coining terms; however, I was deeply disturbed when I saw a legal website refer to flash mobs as including criminal behavior.  It suggests the writer did not do their research on this topic.

I love flash mobs.  I have been participating in them and organizing them since 2009.  When Improv AZ organizes a flash mob, we do thorough research on the potential legal implications of our event.  I have attended an event with pages of statutes in my back pocket to ensure that we’re acting within the confines of the law.  We are diligent to inform our participants in advance of their do’s and don’ts.  We may push the envelope, but we never intend to cross the line.  Most of our encounters with police involve them smiling or laughing at us.  At the 2010 No Pants Ride after party, a Tempe police car stopped near us and an officer yelled out, “We had a briefing about you!”  And then he went about his merry way, knowing we were harmless.  A bit odd and rather goofy, but harmless.

Flash mobs are harmless, playful, and unexpected events.  They are not criminal acts by design.  Flash mobs and crimes are two completely different phenomena.  They do not exist on the same continuum.

In other news, the flash mob community needs to send a big “thank you” to Mayor Jackson and the city of Cleveland.   Mayor Jackson recently vetoed a proposed law that would have made it illegal to use social media to coordinate a flash mob.  Thank you for protecting our First Amendment rights!

The Legal Side of Blogging – Part 4 of 4: Can My Blog Get Me Killed?

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I am a law student. In accordance with ABA policy, this blog should not be viewed as legal advice. It is simply my experiences, opinions, and stuff I looked up on the internet.

The former gas chamber in San Quentin State Pr...
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There have been too many situations where someone has been killed because of what they posted online.  That is not what I’m talking about today.  I wanted to find out if simply posting a blog could legally get you killed.  (The mafia doesn’t count.)

In the United States, you have to be guilty of homicide, a crime committed related to homicide, rape, criminal assault, or something equally heinous to be put to death.  It’s pretty hard, if not impossible, to commit one of these crimes via the words on a blog.  If my words were so shocking that a reader had a heart attack and died, could I be arrested for homicide?  I doubt it.  There are other countries, however, that are more likely to kill you because of your point of view or beliefs.

I did some digging into other countries’ laws and found a handful of capital crimes that could possibly be committed via a blog:

  • China: Corruption, Endangering national security
  • Iran: Homosexuality, Crimes against chastity
  • Libya: Attempting to forcibly change the form of government
  • North Korea: Plots against national sovereignty (includes attempting to leave the country)
  • Saudi Arabia: Witchcraft, Sexual misconduct
  • Sudan: Waging war against the state, Acts that may endanger the independence or unity of the state
  • Syria: Verbal opposition to the government, Membership of the Muslim Brotherhood
  • Vietnam: Undermining peace
  • Yemen: Homosexuality, Adultery

When it comes to crimes committed via blogs, the first question that came up for me was jurisdiction.  Since a blog can be accessed anywhere that there’s an internet connection, a prosecutor would have the burden of proving that it has jurisdiction to bring the charges in that country.

Let’s consider my blog.  I’m a citizen of the United States and this blog is hosted by a company based in the United States.  If I travel to Iran and post a blog from my hotel room that says that I had sex with a girl, but it doesn’t say when or in which country the sex occurred, would Iran have jurisdiction to charge me with a capital crime and kill me?

If a Syrian citizen was studying in the United States on a student visa, had a blog that was hosted in the United States, and posted a blog from the United States where he declared his membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, would Syria have jurisdiction to charge him with a capital crime or would he have to return to Syria first?

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The Legal Side of Blogging – Part 2 of 4: Can My Blog Get Me Arrested?

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I am a law student. In accordance with ABA policy, this blog should not be viewed as legal advice. It is simply my experiences, opinions, and stuff I looked up on the internet.

While most of what we post online is protected by the First Amendment, not all speech is protected.  Therefore, it is logical to think that anything that would be illegal to publish in a newspaper is likely illegal if it was posted online.  There are a fair number of things that could probably get you arrested if you put it on your blog.

Threats of Violence

In general, it’s illegal to threaten violence against another person.  In Arizona, “intentionally placing another person in reasonable apprehension of imminent physical injury” is assault.  The law doesn’t say what methods of creating this apprehension are illegal; therefore you can make an argument that a threat against you in someone’s blog is enough to have the author charged with a crime.  In Britain, there has already been one arrest when a woman threatened to kill someone on Facebook.

It’s also not a good idea to make threats that sound like terrorist plots.  Sarcastic threats should also be avoided since sarcasm doesn’t translate well from reality to the internet.  Paul Chambers learned this the hard way.  He was angry that the airport was closed due to snow and tweeted, “You’ve got a week and a bit to get your s**t together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”  He was convicted of sending “‘indecent, obscene or menacing’ messages over a public electronic communications network.”

Threats Against the President

It appears that the Secret Service patrols the internet looking for postings that threaten the president’s life and that all threats are taken seriously.  Fourteen year-old Julia Wilson was pulled out of class and questioned by the Secret Service after she posted a picture of then-President George W. Bush with the words “Kill Bush” on her Myspace page.  She didn’t know that threatening the president was a federal offense.  The First Amendment lets us express dissatisfaction with the administration, but not with death threats.

Cyberharassment

I’ve already jumped on my proverbial soapbox once about cyberharassment.  It’s illegal in most states and people are getting arrested for bullying people via social media websites, text messages, email, and for bullying people by creating websites about them.  Authorities have been taking these cases more seriously since Megan Meier committed suicide at age 13 after receiving a message on her Myspace page that she was better off dead.

Illegal Sales

The internet gives us numerous forums to sell our stuff; however, selling certain items and services like drugs, human body parts, stolen property, and sex, are still illegal wherever it occurs.  In some situations, you might get off by saying, “It’s not mine,” or “I didn’t do it,” but that will be a harder argument to make if these items are being sold from your personal website.

Solicitation

You can commit solicitation via your blog if you command, encourage, request, or solicit people “to engage in specific conduct which would constitute the felony or misdemeanor.”  I haven’t seen a case like this yet, but given how much the law caters to irrational, foolish people who don’t think through their actions, I can see it happening.

Another thing to remember is that your blog could be used as evidence against you in the event that you are arrested.  There has been at least one case where a sex offender was given a harsher sentence when the judge held that the offender’s blog indicated that he could not follow the court’s orders or control his actions.  His designation was changed from being a sex offender to a sexual predator when he created a posted aimed at his victim.

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