"The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly in cyber space." These words, spoken by Hillary Clinton in a speech about Internet freedom, may have predicted how we will think about freedom of assembly in the future. Today, however, the Constitutional protection of freedom of assembly has applied to physical gatherings by people. There have not been any court cases involving freedom of virtual assembly, but the rise of virtual worlds may force the courts to decide if the freedom of assembly applies to cyberspace.
The First Amendment protects peaceful gatherings of people to protest or inform other people of the gatherers' cause. These gatherings must still follow other laws that protect private property and the general welfare (1).
Historically, these gatherings have taken place in the physical world. Now, protests are also taking place in virtual worlds. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2007, a group of protesters destroyed a building owned by a French political party accused of being racist. The protest started peacefully, but then turned into a virtual mob scene, resulting in the political party's headquarters building disappearing. Another protest in Second Life occurred on the Israel Second Life space, called SL Israel. During the Israel Gaza conflict in 2009, protesters holding signs criticizing Israel appeared. The owner of SL Israel eventually shut down the island because she decided the protesters were too disruptive.
These protests raise questions about who decides when people are free to assemble in virtual worlds. Second Life has a set of community standards, but can these standards take precedence over the Constitution? Who decides whether avatars in Second Life are free to gather for protests - the owners of Second Life, or the laws that govern the country that Second Life's servers are in?
This matter may be further complicated by the U.S. government's presence in Second Life. If administrators of the government's space do not allow people to gather on their land, can they be sued for denying the freedom of assembly?
These questions have not been raised yet in courts, but if virtual worlds become more popular we may see these issues go to court. If the freedom of assembly can be applied to even more abstract ideas of assembly, like assembling on a non-graphical website (as this admittedly unauthoritative essay tries to argue), freedom of assembly could become even more relevant in cyberspace.
Flash mobs, which are sudden gatherings of people who have coordinated to meet at a certain place and time using social media, may also cause conflict with the freedom of assembly. Students at Old Dominion and UT Chattanooga were pepper sprayed by police after gathering in flash mobs on campus. The sudden gathering of people can cause a disruption to the surrounding area, even if their intended activities are peaceful. Can police monitor social media to prevent people from using flash mobs to engage in First Amendment activities? This scenario has not happened yet, but if flash mobs continue to happen it might occur someday.
Another question about freedom of assembly and cyberspace is whether the government will allow terrorists to use social network sites to collaborate and plan deadly attacks. If terrorists are peacefully collaborating online, can the government step in and disrupt their communication? Police officers are not allowed to videotape public gatherings they do not suspect are breaking the law, so law enforcement likely cannot legally monitor peaceful online gatherings. Again, there have been no court cases about this issue yet, so we may see in the future how the courts feel about terrorists on social networks.