Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Twittering while American

Thousands of angry citizens, who fear a "government take over" of the world's resources by powerful governments and the corporations they harbor, took to the streets of Pittsburgh PA.. on Sept 23rd and 24th to protest and disrupt the G20 summit. And while these thousands of protester apparently did not merit even five minutes, of the 24/7 media coverage awarded the few dozens who protested and disrupted our recent congressional town hall meetings, Law enforcement may just end up making some news for having arrested an Elliot Madison for TWITTERING (it's like sending out a mass email, or text message) about the locations of the riot squads and where other police were assembling. Information, by the way, which he found posted on the internet.

You may have heard or read that we have a constitutional right to assemble, and to petition our government, but keep in mind that in most in most jurisdictions, those assemblies must be permitted (unlike guns, at a tea party protest in Arizona or New Hampshire.), and no such permits were going to be issued anywhere near where the the governments met, or from any location where the citizens could actually be heard by these governments' representatives. So Pittsburgh locked down. They brought in and deputized 1000 additional personal as "police", just for the event and they even used an experimental pain complicate technique, called a "sound" cannon to disperse crowds, as well as firing rubber bullets and tear gas at them. Many of these protesters (and a few innocent by standers) were deemed to be committing the crime of protesting with out a permit and were subject to mass arrests, very much like what happen in New York City during the National Republican Convention in 2004. Most were detained until the end of the summit and released with out charges, so short of hiring a lawyer and bringing civil charges against the police, the violation of their civil rights will never be determined. Elliot Madison however, will be getting his day in court.



From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

We've reported here on the use of texting, blogging and tweeting by all sorts of protest movements abroad. But the most recent case, and the arrest of someone tweeting live about protests, took place in the not-so-exotic confines of Pittsburgh.

A self-described anarchist, who was tweeting at the G-20 summit, was arrested. Elliot Madison was accused of directing others to avoid arrest. Madison's home in New York City was searched. He was charged with hindering apprehension or prosecution, criminal use of a communication facility and possession of instruments of crime.

We asked law professor and former prosecutor Paul Butler about this today. We wondered, is telling protesters that there's a cop up ahead arresting protesters any different from blinking your headlights on the highway to signal there's a cop up ahead with a radar gun?

Professor PAUL BUTLER (Law, George Washington University): There's no universal agreement about whether when you do that you're committing a crime. So, in a few jurisdictions, people have actually been charged with traffic offenses for warning about police. So, in a sense, this is a glorified version of that.

SIEGEL: And that would include busting people for communicating logistics to other demonstrators about where to go?

Prof. BUTLER: Well, that's the very difficult decision the judge will have to make. So these cases present difficult First Amendment issues. It's perfectly legal to protest, but it's not legal to help the bad guy run away. So, it's a thin line, not a thick line, between those two.

SIEGEL: Although the bad guy in this case - we understand the bad guy when he is purveying child pornography or selling drugs - in this case, the bad guy would be the protester who might be arrested by a cop if he goes down First Street instead of running down Second Street.

Prof. BUTLER: And it's tough because the police have to make these difficult, on the spot determinations about where the protesters can go. This information may not be transmitted to the protesters. And so, often, they're arrested for conduct that they didn't even know was illegal. It wasn't illegal five minutes ago. And so, in a sense, all of these tweets and Twitterers are just designed to get the message out about what's legal now.

SIEGEL: The New York Times has some of the messages that were exchanged during the protest against the G-20, some of the tweets. SWAT teams rolling down 5th Avenue - that would be one. Another one was: Report received that police are nabbing anyone that looks like a protester. Black block: Stay alert, watch your friends.

Prof. BUTLER: Yeah.

SIEGEL: What does it sound like to you?

Prof. BUTLER: Well, you know, some of it sounds like pure journalism, just reporting what's going on on the scene, not unlike what I heard when I watch some protest on the local news.

You know, the part about watch out for your friend, that's a little bit more ambiguous. But one concern is that sometimes the police have arrested innocent people. So, if I were the defense attorney, I'd say they're just trying to give people information so that they can conform their conduct to the law.

SIEGEL: Now, but let's say if I were a journalist Tweeting about protests, and I sent out a message: SWAT teams rolling down 5th Avenue, my intent is to inform. It's not necessarily to direct people's conduct. On the other hand, when people are informed of something, they decide what to do on the basis of that information. Is there any bright line in law between when you're just giving somebody the facts of the situation or when the fact of the situation, that is, I see cops who are about to beat down your door, flush it, quick, when that information really is part of a - trying to thwart the law?

Prof. BUTLER: Yeah. Well, intent or motive is key. So if the government can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the idea was to help the protesters evade the police and to prevent the protesters' illegal activities from being discovered, then they've broken the law. But that's a lot that the government will have to prove and, you know, it may be difficult based on the evidence.

SIEGEL: New law will be made in these cases in the coming months.

Prof. BUTLER: And the law is used to adapting to new technology, you know, for - there was a time when the telephone was new. And then there was another time when computers were new. And people used these new instruments for both legal activity and for political organizing and sometimes for illegal activity. And what law has to do is to figure out the difference.

SIEGEL: Professor Butler, thank you very much.

Prof. BUTLER: It's great to be here.

SIEGEL: Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor, is a professor of law at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.


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