Tracey M. Romero
Flash mobs. What started out as a novel form of entertainment has, because of its popularity, almost become commonplace. Most people in the United States have at least heard of one or watched it on YouTube, if they haven’t witnessed one live. But how many people really know what a flash mob is and all the legal intricacies that go into planning one?
Ruth Carter, a lawyer and flash mob enthusiast living in Phoenix, Ariz., specializes in flash mob law and sees it as an important and growing field.
Most of us would say that flash mobs are a form of harmless fun where a group of people gather in a public place to synchronously act out an unusual behavior or dance routine. The event organizers recruit participants typically by social media and email. Once the activity is done, all the performers quickly disappear into the crowds. Examples of types of flash mob activities include riding the train without pants on or going to the airport and welcoming back complete strangers to singing Christmas carols in the middle of a mall.
A few members of Improv Arizona are dancing as part of a flash mob event in an area mall.
Credit: Improv Arizona Flickr
Although most are performed by a group of people who are looking to have a little fun and grab their few seconds of fame, businesses and institutions have also incorporated flash mobs into their communication and marketing plans. According to Hugo Halliday, these events called “smart mobs” are designed to bring in more customers and increase brand awareness. Since these are more formal events with higher stakes, businesses tend to pay more attention to legal formalities like permits, participation permission slips and liability waivers.
In her legal practice and on her blog, Carter offers practical advice for would-be “mobsters.” She encourages them to plan ahead for any problems that might arise during the event. She believes that they should always know the legal implications of their actions.
For example, did you know that “glitter bombs” fall under “offensive touching” which is a crime? Most of us picture sexual touching and lewd behavior when we hear that term, but in actuality, according to Carter in her article, “The Basics of Flash Mob Law,” any touching with a body part or object where you know you are going to upset the person falls under this category.
“Put yourself in a mall cop or curmudgeon’s shoes and try to look at it from their perspective, not just your perspective as the organizer who is trying to create a fun event,” Carter said in an email.
Rules of Thumb to Follow
As a flash mob enthusiast and a lawyer who specializes in flash mob law, Carter was introduced to flash mobs in 2009 when she was at Arizona State University. She went on to help form a troupe called Improv Arizona and was selected as one of the 2012 “Legal Rebels” by the American Bar Association. She advocates the following:
Know the City and State Laws that are Applicable for your Event—“Be mindful of laws like conspiracy and solicitation that apply before the event takes place and will apply to you even if you cancel the event,” Carter said. “Also, remember that the photos and videos from flash mobs appear online in about three seconds after the event is over. This can and will be used as evidence against you if something goes wrong.”
She highly recommends consulting with a lawyer from the beginning of the planning process. There is a list of common legal issues that can apply in flash mob situations: conspiracy, solicitation, assault, indecent exposure, and trespassing.
She also added that “there are also catch-all laws like rioting, disorderly conduct, public nuisance and unlawful assembly that you should be mindful of.”
She gives the example that according to certain state laws, you can be charged with conspiracy even if you do not attend, but only help plan a flash mob event that involves a crime like trespassing. If you are an organizer of such an event and you invite people to attend through your Facebook event, you can also be charged for solicitation.
Treat All Interaction with Law Enforcement Seriously—If you are arrested, Carter reminds you to invoke your right to remain silent until you speak to your attorney.
Give a Clear List of Do’s and Don’ts to Participants before the Events take Place to Thwart any Incidents from Happening—When she helped organize a pillow fight at a mall with her troupe, Improv Arizona, the guidelines the troupe gave out might seem obvious, but when you think about it, you can see how problems may ensue.
For instance they were told to keep the pillow out of sight until the pillow fight and to only hit other people with pillows. They were also told to take off their glasses and to not hit someone who is holding a camera. If a person not involved in the flash mob gets hurt or their property is damaged there will be many legal ramifications.
Not all Media Attention is Good—One of the draws for many people participating in flash mobs is the attention. There are usually many photos and videos taken of the event, many of them going viral on social media sites as well as being picked up by television stations. These can be used as evidence against you in a criminal case, but even an employer might use it as reason for firing you, if there is a “fire at will” clause in your employment contract.
The assumptions many have about flash mobs is that if they conduct their event in a public place that they do not have to worry about seeking permission or applying for permits, but malls are becoming an increasingly popular place for these events and technically they are not public property because they are owned by a corporation. Because many malls have their own security forces, you need to be aware of the true extent of their authority before planning an event in that space. Can the mall cop force you to show identification or hold you if you didn’t shoplift? There are certain rules they can enforce like forcing you to leave the property and to not videotape on the premise, but they can’t force a person to erase what they have filmed.
One of the malls that Carter’s troupe liked to frequent has notified all flash mob troupes that they are not permitted on the mall’s premise and that they will be arrested if they attempt it. She explained in the article,”The Basics of Flash Mob Law,” that “My troupe will not do an event there because we don’t want to go where we’re not welcome, and they have real police officers on site.”
Organizers of flash mob events are the most vulnerable to legal trouble. Many think that if they have harmless intentions then they can’t get in trouble, but that is not the case. If anyone is hurt or property damaged in any way, the organizers could face, if not criminal charges, at least civil lawsuits. This is especially scary because most event organizers are just a loose group of friends and acquaintances; they don’t have the appropriate liability insurance to handle situations like this where they could be facing personal lawsuits that will cost them thousands of dollars out of their own pocket.
As more lawyers specialize in flash mob law, they will have to answer the question of who should be liable if something goes wrong at a flash mob. Should it be all the organizers? Just those listed as administrators on the social media site? Should a person only be liable if they were at the event or should it be the ones’ who are responsible for the damage or injury?
Criminal Behavior Commonly Mistaken for a Flash Mob
Carter is frustrated when she sees criminal activity referred to as flash mobs. As a flash mob enthusiast, she is discouraged by the negative press.
There has been a rash of criminal behavior that is being masked as “flash mob” and true flash mobsters are frustrated with the negativity it brings the rest of them. According to Carter, “flash mobs, by definition, don’t have any criminal intent.”
“It appears the term ‘flash mob’ is being used inappropriately and its meaning is being overly broadened to include any group activity that is coordinated using social media,” Carter wrote in her article, “Flash Mobs Are Not Crimes.”
She pointed out that “there have been several robberies and assaults perpetrated by a group of people that appear, at least on the surface, to have been orchestrated via social media sites.”
The media has dubbed these crimes as “flash mob crimes” which creates this idea that someone posts an event on Facebook that states explicit the crime they are going to commit.
Carter feels strongly that these crimes should not be linked together with flash mobs whose only purpose is to entertain or maybe share a message. But in many places, flash mobs are already getting a bad rap. NBC10 reported in April that in Philadelphia, Pa., a large teenage brawl outside of a Wendy’s was referred to by many witnesses as a “flash mob.” A similar event two years prior led to the mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, to enact tough curfews for teenagers.
Even stronger lash back is being felt in Illinois where, according to the Huffington Post, a law is under consideration which will distribute tougher penalties for those caught participating in a flash mob. Lawmakers created this law in response to a rash of flash mobs that has been taking place on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Ill., where people were harassed and in some cases robbed and injured. The law currently still waits for Gov. Pat Quinn’s approval. Under this new law, any person charged with using electronic communication to incite mob violence could serve three to six years in prison.
It is obvious that more lawyers specializing in this area are greatly needed. As someone who has been on both sides of these cases, Carter believes that “it takes a particular lawyer to practice flash mob law because you have to be open to and generally support your clients’ ridiculous ideas, patiently work with them to try to keep their events legal, and be willing to be the killjoy who explains the many ways they could get arrested or sued if they proceed with their plans.”
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