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Flash mobs, riots prompt debate about social media crackdown

August 16, 2011 |  7:52 am

Police block Hollywood Boulevard after a disturbance broke out when a DJ used his Twitter feed to announce a concert.

A summer marked by social-media-fueled riots in England and flash-mob violence in several American cities, including Philadelphia and Cleveland, has officials debating how much they should — and legally can — crack down.

"This one is so big and so fast and has so many branches to it, there are definitely some who feel overwhelmed by where to begin," said Sheriff's Capt. Mike Parker, an avid Twitter user who's become something of an online ambassador to other law enforcement agencies. "You have to trust your younger officers who were raised on it and think it's perfectly normal."

Those involved in the looting and civil unrest around London used BlackBerry messages to organize, leading British Prime Minister David Cameron to suggest shutting down access to social media for anyone suspected of using it for criminal activity.

The Cleveland City Council went further after a large flash mob disrupted a Fourth of July fireworks display with violence, passing an ordinance that would have made it illegal to use social media to organize a violent and disorderly flash mob. The mayor eventually vetoed the measure, citing 1st Amendment concerns.

Officials at the Bay Area Rapid Transit District have taken perhaps the most controversial step. Faced with a large demonstration on a subway platform announced by social media to protest the police shooting of a knife-wielding man, BART last week shut down cellphone service at the station. Officials said their goal was to protect the safety of subway riders, but critics immediately blasted the transit agency, saying it encroached on their free-speech rights. New protests Monday shut down several BART stations.

The issue of social media also came up in Los Angeles last month when a DJ sent out a Twitter message that caused hundreds to converge on Hollywood Boulevard. Police were called in to control the crowd.

But legal experts say police face a delicate balance when cracking down on social media — and prosecutors must meet a high bar trying to show that irresponsible, even reckless, tweeting amounts to a crime.

As in any medium, if the message includes an explicit call for violence — say, a death threat — prosecution is more likely. "If I use skywriting, the law would be the same for that kind of thing," said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.


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--Robert Faturechi and Andrew Blankstein

Photo: Police block Hollywood Boulevard after a disturbance broke out when a DJ used his Twitter feed to announce a concert. [For the record: An earlier version of this photo caption incorrectly said the photo was taken in 2010. It was taken in July 2011.] Credit: Arkasha Stevenson / Los Angeles Times