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Professor Lisa McElroy Cites Threats to Law in Boston Marathon Bombing's Wake

May 09, 2013

In two opinion recent opinion essays, Professor Lisa McElroy highlighted a range of legal issues stirred by the Boston Marathon bombings and their aftermath.

In an essay published May 1 in the Huffington Post, McElroy and co-author Josh Blackman explored legal issues associated with social media, crowdsourcing and law enforcement that emerged following the tragedy. Investigators relied on videos and photos supplied by survivors, bystanders and local merchants to identify and track down suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. But as police later closed in on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, they urged the public not to disclose details of the suspect’s location via blogs or Twitter, just as officials had urged the news media not to tweet sensitive details of the manhunt for fugitive Christopher Dorner in February, McElroy and Blackman noted.

“Here the requests to stop tweeting were voluntary. It is not hard to imagine a situation, however, where the government could order the press -- old and new -- to stop reporting,” McElroy and Blackman wrote. “The risk to the rule of law? Orders of prior restraint -- telling the press not to report on matters of public concern -- are unconstitutional limitations on speech.”

The “democratization and twitterization” of the Boston Marathon investigation raised troubling questions, the authors concluded in their essay, which The Houston Chronicle published on May 6.

Also on May 6, the National Law Journal published another opinion piece in which McElroy and co-author Lyrissa Lidsky outlined additional threats to the rule of law that arose from the tragedy. The essay noted the warrantless police searches of Massachusetts residences at the height of the manhunt for the Tsarnaevs, the police questioning of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev before he was read his Miranda rights and an endorsement the Federal Communications Commission chairman offered via Twitter of expletive-laden praise that a Boston Red Sox player offered to police in a televised interview following Tsarnaev’s arrest. Citing authority the Supreme Court granted the FCC to regulate indecency on the airwaves, the authors questioned the random application of standards.

“Can the FCC chairman unilaterally decide not to fine broadcasters,” they wrote.  “And can the FCC really announce a new rule via Twitter?”

Regardless of the standards the FCC sets for indecency, they wrote, “standards should be applied consistently, across the board, and in a manner that demonstrates that the rule of law is still alive and well.”