After 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, every line on every phone at the station was jammed within seconds, says the Los Angeles Times. 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. Now authorities are facing a tough question: Should those who send tweets be held liable for the problems their messages cause?
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. 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 with 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.