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

Share story

LOS ANGELES — All it took was a tweet. A famous rapper’s Twitter feed posted a phone number for the Compton station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, urging his more than half-million followers to call. Within seconds, every line on every phone at the station was jammed.

Legitimate emergency calls for help were blocked for almost three hours by a deluge of pranksters. Sheriff’s officials denounced the tweet by The Game as irresponsible. But now authorities are facing a tough question: Should those who send tweets be held liable for the problems their messages cause?

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

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.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

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 First Amendment concerns.

Officials at the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) 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 for encroaching on their free-speech rights.

Law enforcement has long dealt with unwieldy crowds, whether it is at protests, concerts or even celebrations like a team’s title victory. But Twitter and other social media have made it much easier to mobilize large crowds quickly, and police are struggling to keep up.

Some police departments are beginning to assign officers to monitor Facebook, Twitter and other sites in search of crime and also to understand how it works.

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.

But most cases aren’t so clear-cut. In the case of a celebrity tweeting the phone number of a law-enforcement help line, Volokh said, prosecutors would have to prove the tweeter intended to jam the lines, either with a confession after the fact, or some sort of documented planning beforehand. That legal argument has been used against hackers who purposefully overwhelm an organization’s website so legitimate users can’t get through.

Ironically, The Game may have been more legally protected had his tweet identified the number as the sheriff’s line, and encouraged his followers to call in with criticisms. That sort of political organizing would have free-speech protection, Volokh said.

After The Game’s tweet, the rapper took to the Internet, blaming a friend for commandeering his account. While certainly careless, Volokh said, a celebrity leaving his Twitter feed unattended is hardly a criminal act. The law is very specific about when negligence is criminal.

For flash mobs, the guilty tweeter could be charged with organizing a demonstration without a permit. But as far as any mayhem that ensues, such as fighting, property damage or looting, the individual offenders would be criminally liable, not the organizer, Volokh said,

“Just because you invite people to join you at some place, and they end up committing crimes, doesn’t mean at all that you’re responsible for those crimes,” he said.

In Britain on Tuesday, two young men from the outskirts of Manchester were each given four years in prison for inciting others to riot via Facebook postings. Also, police charged a 16-year-old boy with murder over the death of a 68-year-old retiree who was attacked during the turmoil. He was the fifth person reported killed in the turmoil that started Aug. 6 after a peaceful protest about the death of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old man of Afro-Caribbean descent who was shot and killed by a police officer.

Additional information from The New York Times

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.