Clouds, Cameras, and Computers: The First Amendment and Networked Public Places

70 Pages Posted: 11 Jan 2007

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Public places are becoming highly networked environments. Municipalities are draping wireless clouds over vast public spaces, facilitating always-on internet connectivity. Surveillance cameras are now a pervasive presence in many public places. The people who gather in public and use public spaces are wearing and carrying ever more sophisticated computing devices. An integrated grid of networked connectivity is being built into traditional bricks-and-mortar public places. This Article examines the First Amendment implications of the progression toward networked public places. Wireless clouds will raise substantial property, public forum, and privacy issues. The networking of public places will also challenge traditional notions of public versus private expression. As Web access becomes ubiquitous and expression increasingly mobile, public citizens will be more captive to expression than ever before. New forms of virtual harassment, stalking, and other potentially harmful expression will appear. Public protests will also be affected by the networking of public places. Spontaneous gatherings will be made easier; but so too will official and unofficial surveillance of public protests and displays. Speaker and group identity - and perhaps eventually even speakers' thoughts - may be discovered, undermining protection for expressive anonymity. Finally, an army of citizen-journalists will roam public places, reporting on events from the field and posting content on the Web in real time. These citizen-journalists may seek to claim the mantle of the press. As serious as these issues are, the author argues that the stakes are actually much higher. Drawing upon scholarship in urban geography and sociology, the Article shows how public spatial networking will affect the critical identity, participation, and transparency functions of public places. It will influence who speaks, where they may communicate, and what they will say. It will render speakers more knowable to authorities, but in many cases less knowable to one another. People will increasingly interact with devices in public, rather than with one another. Speech regulation will be less transparent. The Article concludes with some modest proposals for resisting, or at least neutralizing, the negative First Amendment effects associated with spatial networking

Suggested Citation

Zick, Timothy, Clouds, Cameras, and Computers: The First Amendment and Networked Public Places. Florida Law Review, Vol. 59, p. 1, 2007, St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 06-0062, Available at SSRN:

Timothy Zick (Contact Author)

William & Mary Law School ( email )

South Henry Street
P.O. Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795
United States
757-221-2076 (Phone)

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