The following post originally appeared on the blog “Hamilton and Griffin on Rights.” The owners of the blog have kindly allowed me to cross-post it here.
The year 2014 has raised many issues relating to offensive, harassing, and threatening Internet speech. In January, columnist Amanda Hess wrote a piece called “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” sparking a wide-ranging and still-ongoing conversation about online speech. The debate over Internet speech has extended to other areas. New York’s highest court considered and ultimately rejected a state cyberbullying statute as overbroad, in violation of the First Amendment. More than twenty states passed or are considering statutes criminalizing revenge porn. Meanwhile, intimate photos of celebrities were stolen, downloaded, and shared over and over. GamerGate led to intense online harassment of women involved in the video game industry, with serious consequences in the offline world—after receiving graphic anonymous threats, pop culture commentator Anita Sarkeesian cancelled a talk, while video game developer Brianna Wu had to leave her home for several days.
It’s fitting, then, that the Supreme Court should hear argument today in Elonis v United States, a case involving involving arguably threatening posts on Facebook. The Supreme Court has held that “true threats” may be criminalized consistent with the First Amendment, although it has not defined the term “true threats” with any precision. The issue Elonis presents is whether a person can be convicted of making true threats if a reasonable person would have perceived the statements as threatening, or whether, as Elonis argues, the government must also prove that the speaker subjectively intended to make a threat. Continue reading →
Recent events have caused me to think about the ethics of editorial discretion. In particular, how should authors, editors, and publishers take into account the harm caused by publicizing information about other people’s private lives?
Over the weekend, an online magazine made a very poor editorial choice. A writer for the magazine wrote a piece about the proper use of the term “bro.” The piece included the sentence: “And I just don’t think the diminutive label of ‘bro’ should be to describe more insidious sexism, let alone violent aggression like rape threats.” The words “rape threats” were hyperlinked to a single tweet by a female journalist.* The tweet was addressed directly to another person on Twitter, in which the journalist had used a variant of the word “bro” in briefly alluding to rape threats she had received. (For non-Twitter-users: when a tweet begins with the “@” symbol and the username of another person on Twitter, only the sender and recipient of the tweet, and any people who happen to follow both users, will see the tweet. Other people can then find the tweet, which is technically public, but doing so requires a specific search.)
When the magazine published the piece, the female journalist objected, understandably, on several grounds: (1) the piece suggested that she had talked about her own rape threats the “wrong way”; (2) the piece gratuitously drew attention to those rape threats in a way that would likely provoke more threats; (3) the piece alluded to her rape threats casually, like any other material that might be thrown into a piece to make a point; and (4) the piece made an example of something that she had chosen to keep mostly private and that was undoubtedly disturbing to her. Continue reading →