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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Cleveland's 'Flash Mob' Law Fuzzy, Maybe Illegal

Posted By on Tue, Jul 26, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Use carefully.
  • Use carefully.

The jury may still be out on flash mobs — harmless group dance? malicious gang warfare? refreshing summertime treat? — but Cleveland isn’t wasting any time setting up its defenses.

Before the city digs in with a hearty lineup of late-summer outdoor events, council has passed a new provision that takes the legal stick to anyone caught organizing destruction via their computers.

The newly christened crime is termed “Improper Use of Social Media,” which sounds like what our parents do every time they log in to remind us we need to do our laundry or bring that nice girl over for dinner.

The legal fine print says that law enforcement can now add additional minor misdemeanor charges to anyone who’s been arrested for disorderly conduct, failure to disperse, or unlawful congregation if it’s determined they were organized through the interwebs.

The provision, introduced by Councilman Zack Reed, sailed through council last week.

“What we’re saying is this: If you come to the festival with the intent to disrupt a family-oriented event, then we have the tools in the toolbox to deal with you,” Reed tells Scene.

He decided to inject the tough legal talk after fallout from the recent violence at the Coventry Street Fair. Pressed on whether he thinks local teens are organizing just for the sake of creating havoc, Reed defers to the cops.

“They can see the difference between someone who gets into a fight at an event because somebody stepped on their blanket or something like that,” he says. “They can tell that it’s different than 15 or 20 people coming down the street pushing and shoving.”

The first problem with the new ordinance may be in determining whether it’s actually street legal. No way, says the Ohio branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. The problem stems from the law’s vagueness about who would be open to prosecution or how police would determine whether social media caused the ruckus. Cops, after all, can’t search cell phones.

“I don’t know if there was a lot of thought that went into this, or if this was just a reaction to what was reported to have happened in Cleveland Heights,” says James Hardiman, the ACLU’s legal director for Ohio. “But either way, we can’t suspend the First Amendment.”

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