Free Speech: If you bring your smartphone to a hotel room with internet access, does it become a communication facility?

While it might seem obvious to you that emails, text messages, IMs and tweets fall under the protection of the First Amendment, the guardians of authority may think otherwise. As the Times puts it, "[a]s demonstrations have evolved with the help of text messages and online social networks, so too has the response of law enforcement.
On Thursday, F.B.I. agents descended on a house in Jackson Heights, Queens, and spent 16 hours searching it. The most likely reason for the raid: a man who lived there had helped coordinate communications among protesters at the Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh.
Elliot Madison, a 41-year social worker and self-described anarchist, was arrested during the G20 and charged with "hindering apprehension or prosecution, criminal use of a communication facility and possession of instruments of crime." He is out on $30,000 bail after he and Michael Wallschlaeger, 46, were tracked to the Carefree Inn in Pittsburgh where the Pennsylvania State Police said he was found "with computers and police scanners while using the social-networking site Twitter to spread information about police movements."

Text messaging and twittering have been important to large scale demonstrations from the Republican National Convention in 2004 to the Iranian election protests of recent weeks. Elliott Madison is one of the first in this country to be formally charged with criminal twittering, however. A Pennsylvania complaint accuses him of “directing others, specifically protesters of the G-20 summit, in order to avoid apprehension after a lawful order to disperse.”
A search warrant executed by the F.B.I. at Mr. Madison’s house authorized agents and officers looking for violations of federal rioting laws to seize computers and phones, black masks and clothes and financial records and address books. Among the items seized, according to a list prepared by the agents, were electronic equipment, newspapers, books and gas masks. The items also included what was described as a picture of Lenin.
What kind of anarchist makes a hero out Lenin?

A judge ordered authorities to stop examining the seized materials until Oct. 16, while she considered whether the FBI's search warrant was too wide and too vague.

Although Madison's activities, as part "the Tin Can Comms Collective, a group of people who collected information and used Twitter to send mass text messages describing protest-related events that they observed on the streets," more closely resemble those of a reporter than of a revolutionary, for the moment police agencies will be able to harass protesters and stifle dissent with bogus arrests for texting and tweeting. Organizers will need to take care in using social networking and digital communication media in confrontations with authorities, at least until the courts get everyone's rights and obligations sorted out and Constitutional guarantees are put back in place.

The rest of the story: Arrest Puts Focus on Protesters’ Texting by Colin Moynihan (New York Times 2009-10-05)
See, also: New York man accused of using Twitter to direct protesters during G20 summit (The Guardian 2009-09-04)

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