Men arrested for G-20 Twittering say it's free speech

Police claim tweets aided protesters' criminal activity

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The quick evolution of technology has changed the way Americans do almost everything, including how law enforcement combats crime, and consequently, how criminals elude law enforcement.

Those two concepts converged during the G-20 summit, when state police arrested two New York men for using Twitter to inform protesters in Pittsburgh about the movements of local officers.

They are accused of hindering apprehension, criminal use of communication facility and possessing instruments of crime. The charges raise questions about the use of technology in areas where the First Amendment and potential criminal activity converge.

"Anyone can tweet, but the truth is, sometimes speech can be criminal," said John Burkoff, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

The charges came to light late last week when an attorney for self-described anarchist Elliot Madison filed a motion in federal court in New York asking for the return of much of the evidence seized during a 16-hour FBI search. Agents arrived at the man's Queens residence at 6 a.m. Thursday to investigate potential violations of "federal rioting laws."

Several people live in the house, Mr. Madison's lawyer said, and much of the material taken did not belong to his client.

While there were many potentially relevant items seized -- gas masks, computers, corked glass vials, beakers and test tubes -- there were lots of likely irrelevant materials seized, as well -- posters of a cat and another of Curious George, photographs of Karl Marx and Lenin, along with MP3 players.

Also taken were files of Mr. Madison's clients. He is a social worker in Manhattan and has two master's degrees.

Attorney Martin R. Stolar describes his clients, Elliot and Elena Madison, as "political activists dealing with social justice issues as well as paralegal support workers for those contemplating political action and those arrested as a result of political demonstration activity."

Elena Madison is not charged in the case but is one of the plaintiffs requesting return of the seized items.

They work as part of a confederation known as The Peoples' Law Collective.

According to a criminal complaint filed against Mr. Madison, Pennsylvania State Police served a search warrant on Room 238 of the Carefree Inn on Kisow Drive in Kennedy early in the afternoon of Sept. 24. It was the first day of the G-20 summit and also the day set for unsanctioned protests in Lawrenceville.

In the motel room, police discovered Mr. Madison and Michael Wallschlaeger sitting in front of personal computers listening to both police and EMS scanners.

They were using headphones, microphones and maps to alert protesters about the movements of law enforcement, the complaint said. They sent the information out via cell phones and Twitter.

"Investigating the government and broadcasting information about it would seem to be constitutionally protected communication," said Witold Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union. "If the police want to communicate privately, there are certainly ways to do that, and police radios are not one of those.

"How can it be a crime? It's not a secure communication."

But Mr. Burkoff said that it's one thing to listen to police information and even to share it. It's another, though, to provide it to someone for potentially criminal purposes.

"Were they sending it to people simply to protest, or to commit further crimes?" he asked.

To earn a conviction, prosecutors will have to show that Mr. Madison and Mr. Wallschlaeger were assisting criminal activity.

"It begs the question of both timing and what the people were doing when they received [the information]," Mr. Burkoff said.

Given the timing of the arrests -- the criminal complaint lists 3:25 p.m. -- Mr. Walczak noted that Mr. Madison could not have been aiding the few people who destroyed property in Oakland during the G-20, because that happened later in the day.

Indeed, the court filing specifically notes that the underlying crime Mr. Madison was assisting was the protesters' failure to disperse.

"Are they plotting against world leaders?" Mr. Walczak asked. "I find so much of what happened the last two weeks mystifying. The response seems so disproportionate to the threat."

Mr. Burkoff has not heard of police making arrests based on the use of Twitter before.

He noted that the American government encouraged the use of the social networking program for people protesting elections in Iran earlier this year.

"We tend to applaud the use of Twitter when it's in Iran and protests we like," he said. "But we're much more nervous about it when it's protests we don't like."

Mr. Walczak questioned the constitutionality of the charges, as well as their necessity.

"I guess if you have 5,000 police officers and a quarter-million dollars in fancy equipment, you have to do something with it," he said. "Might as well go after some amateur ham radio operators in a motel room."


Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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