The Legalities of having a Bat Signal

The Bat-Signal? by graphiclunarkid from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The Bat-Signal? by graphiclunarkid from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have the palette of a five year-old and a massive sweet tooth – especially for ice cream. I would love to have a bat signal – well something like it but only in the shape of an ice cream cone. I want to be able to turn my bat signal on and have multiple people calling and texting to ask “What flavor?”

Unfortunately, bat signals are illegal in Arizona. I was driving around this past December with a friend who remarked that a business that had moving spotlights pointing up at the sky was violating of a city ordinance. This inspired me to be a legal geek and look up why bat signals are illegal in the Arizona criminal laws and the Phoenix city ordinances. Here’s what I came up with.

2012-12-14-0473 by Al Pavangkanan from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

2012-12-14-0473 by Al Pavangkanan from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Disorderly Conduct (Class 1 Misdemeanor)
Disorderly conduct is a catch-all law written to apply to activities that the powers that be dislike but where there isn’t a specific law on point. The Arizona disorderly conduct law prohibits excessive noise, but not excessive light. The law does prohibit “fighting, violent or seriously disruptive behavior,” but there may be an argument that a bat signal may be disruptive, but it shouldn’t be treated as being in the same category as physical violence.

Public Nuisance (Class 2 Misdemeanor)
I think this is what you might get if your neighbors call the cops on you. In Arizona it’s illegal to do anything that is “injurious to health, indecent, offensive to the senses or an obstruction to the free use of property that interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property by an entire community or neighborhood or by a considerable number of persons.” If your bat signal is so bright that it interferes with your neighbors’ ability to enjoy their property, it could be illegal.

Criminal Nuisance (Class 3 Misdemeanor)
In Arizona, a criminal nuisance is “conduct either unlawful in itself or unreasonable under the circumstances,” such as a person who “recklessly creates or maintains a condition which endangers the safety or health of others.” I could see law enforcement making a strong argument that turning on a bat signal could be hazardous to other’s safety, especially if it limits people’s ability to see or disrupt traffic on the streets or in the air.

The City of Phoenix has city ordinances that require outdoor lighting to be shielded and/or filtered – including spotlights. The City also has rules against disturbing the peace or creating a nuisance that is “offensive to the senses.” The rules for using a searchlight say you can’t have one within 150 feet of a residential structure, that it can only be used between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m., and it can’t contain any advertising. I don’t think my bat signal is advertising because I’d use to get people to bring me ice cream, not to sell anything.

I suspect if you want to have a bat signal, you’d have to get a permit to use it only for a special event and then after that it could only be used for show. The Phoenix rules require you to file for a permit at least 45 days in advance. I can’t plan my ice cream cravings out that far. It’s too bad – it would have been awesome to have a bat signal.

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Is It Illegal to Tweet Lies?

Last week during Hurricane Sandy, many of us turned to Twitter for up-to-the-minute updates about the storm. An anonymous person using the handle @ComfortablySmug made several tweets.

  • BREAKING: Con Edison has begun shutting down all power in Manhattan
  • BREAKING: Governor Cuomo is trapped in Manhattan. Has been taken to a secure shelter
  • BREAKING: Confirmed flooding on NYSE. The trading floor is flooded under more than 3 feet of water.

It was later revealed that the information was false, but not before these tweets were retweeted more than 500 times according to reports.

Buzzfeed’s Jack Stuef investigated the situation and determined that the anonymous tweeter was Shashank Tripathi, a campaign manager for Republican congressional candidate Christopher Wight. Tripathi has since resigned from his position and tweeted an apology for posting inaccurate information. That was his latest tweet from that account.

The New York District Attorney’s Office was asked to pursue criminal charges against Tripathi for his irresponsible tweeting. It will be interesting to see if he’s charged.

What Might He Be Charged With?
In many situations, it’s not illegal to lie unless you’re entering realms like fraud or identity theft. I did some digging in the Arizona criminal code and I could see a prosecutor making an argument that a person who posts inaccurate information during an emergency could be charged with electronic harassment, falsely reporting an emergency or causing public panic, creating a hoax, or possibly something along the lines of disorderly conduct.

Some of these crimes, like electronic harassment, require a victim and Tripathi didn’t appear to have a target. I wonder if issues like this might make the prosecution’s job harder.

What About Tripathi’s Right to be Anonymous?
Yes, the First Amendment protects your right to free speech, including your right to speak anonymously. It does not guarantee your anonymity. If you want to be anonymous, you have the responsibility of not making it easy for others to figure out who you are. Apparently @ComfortablySmug was unmasked because he posted censored pictures of himself and the uncensored version was easily discovered and revealed his identity.

If he committed a crime, his right to be anonymous also went out the window.

What do you think should happen to Shashank Tripathi? Should he be charged with a crime for tweeting lies about Hurricane Sandy? Please share your opinion as a comment below.

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