Phoenix lawyer has an unusual specialty: Keeping flash mobs legal

Ruth Carter is a Phoenix lawyer and ASU graduate who specializes in business formation and contracts, intellectual property, Internet law and one other unusual area — flash-mob law. (Madeline Pado/DD)
Ordinary lawyers don’t spend their days plotting ideas for flash mobs and designing custom T-shirts, and ordinary lawyers don’t work out of their homes with a basset hound curled up at their feet. Ruth Carter, however, is anything but an ordinary lawyer.

Nobody can speak to this more than Douglas Sylvester, dean of ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Sylvester had Carter as a student in his intellectual-property class at ASU and has spoken with her on multiple occasions outside of class.

“Ruth immediately became interested in an area of law nobody else was doing,” Sylvester said. “She found a niche in emerging media and technology.”

This niche led her to open her own business, Carter Law Firm, in January 2012 after graduating from law school in May 2011. Carter specializes in business formation and contracts, intellectual property, Internet law (particularly in regards to social media and blogging), and flash-mob law.

This last category is what makes Carter’s career so unique. As far as she is aware, she is one of only two lawyers in the country who deal with flash-mob law.

Her interest in the subject arose after participating in her first flash mob in 2009 as a first-year law student. After researching Arizona’s indecency laws, Carter hopped on the light rail with approximately 90 other people and proceeded to ride without wearing pants.

On the light rail, Carter chose to stand next to Jeff Moriarty, who later helped organize the first No Pants Light Rail Ride this year. Moriarty said he and Carter took their pants off together, as awkward an introduction as that may be.

After the light-rail ride, Carter, Moriarty and a few others came together and created Improv AZ, a flash-mob organization modeled after Improv Everywhere. The group puts on flash mobs that are open to the public and also enacts legal pranks that are not known outside the organization until the videos show up on YouTube.

“I became the designated killjoy,” Carter said of Improv AZ. “I was in charge of thinking up ways it could go wrong, stuff we can’t do and the basic dos and don’ts so that we didn’t get arrested or sued.”

This knowledge came in handy to the organization’s members, many of whom were excited for their potential flash mobs but had no knowledge as to what they could legally get away with.

“I really didn’t have a desire to go to jail — there’s a lot of things I want to do in life, jail not being one of them,” Moriarty said. “It was reassuring to know for certain that we weren’t breaking the law.”

Since that first light-rail ride, Carter has participated in more than a dozen flash mobs and pranks with Improv AZ. Although the No Pants Light Rail Ride holds a dear place in her heart, she said she can’t pick a favorite flash mob or prank.

“That’s like asking a parent to pick which kid is their favorite!” Carter said. “They’re all fantastic in their own way.”

One event that used her legal expertise was titled the “Coroner Prank.” Four Improv AZ members dressed in shirts that read “coroner” carried a body bag containing a fake body through a shopping mall.

“On our way out of the mall, a mall cop rolled up on a Segway and stopped us, claiming we had committed dozens of felonies. Although we offered to leave immediately, he called the real cops,” Carter said.

The fake coroners were threatened to be charged with disorderly conduct but eventually ended up being banned from the mall for three months. Carter, who was one of the coroners, said a total of 11 people participated in the prank, which also included individuals filming reactions to the coroners’ procession through the mall.

Moriarty explained that there are several misconceptions surrounding flash mobs. The first is that they are typically committing crimes.

“Ruth helps us find the things that we can do and understand where the law isn’t really saying no,” Moriarty said. “It’s not as restrictive as you may think, but we absolutely abide by it in our flash mobs.”

The other commonly held belief is that just anyone can use a flash mob as a corporate marketing strategy or to propose to a girlfriend. Moriarty and Carter both stressed that this is an easy way for people to get in trouble, as they often don’t consider the legality of their actions.

These misconceptions have lead Carter to begin writing an e-book that is tentatively titled “The Legal Side of Flash Mobs.” The title mirrors that of her first book, “The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to Get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed.”

The idea for Carter’s first book came out of her own experiences as a blogger, she said. After six months spent writing, editing and reformatting, the e-book was published. It quickly became number one on Amazon’s Science and Technology list, a position it held on and off for at least a week.

“The book is really written in layman’s terms,” Carter said. “It’s designed to be a resource for your average blogger who wants to stay out of trouble and make sure they’re not violating copyright laws, or committing libel, or doing anything they’re not supposed to be doing.”

Carter’s interesting law specializations, flash-mob participation and published books are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what she is involved in. She has also presented at various technology conferences around the Phoenix area and was recently selected to speak at South by Southwest in March.

In addition, Carter has received several major awards, including being named a Big Brain Award finalist in 2011 and an American Bar Association Legal Rebel in 2012.

As her former co-worker Julia Kolsrud said, “Ruth is incredibly unique. She knows what she wants to do, and she isn’t doing it in the same manner as other attorneys would do it.”

Contact the reporter at kimberly.koerth@asu.edu