I am, as those who know me well realize, something of a free speech absolutist. I think that the government can restrict publication of military secrets that are immediately tactically useful to an enemy army in the field, and perhaps kiddie porn, though I’m less sure about the latter. (Not because I’m not against kiddie porn — of course I think those people should be flung into jail — but because I’m not sure whether the laws we have against conducting sexual acts on children aren’t enough to punish kiddie porn makers without having an extra law about the filmed result.)
Yet my free speech absolutism is tinged with a concern for individual privacy. Privacy is a necessary precondition for the best things, and, in particular, for our being free from social pressures to find our best lives.
So for a while, I’ve felt like I ought to chime in on this autoadmit debate,** and, generally, the debate about what to do about people who do really horrible things on the internet, by, e.g., revealing people’s personal information, spreading really horrible lies about others, etc. etc. Cf. Dan’s post, including links to Dave Hoffman’s detailed investigation of AutoAdmit.
But I think the debate is being conducted on entirely the wrong terms. The question should not be “what should the law do, or not to, to punish these people.” The question should be “what has gone wrong in our society to create these people, and how can we fix it?” Belle comes closest, I think, in talking about community norms, and asking how we fight bad norms (troll norms) with good ones.
That is, I think the problem of the internet trolls is isomorphic with the problem of the terrorists: for various reasons, force is likely to be ineffective or problematic (for the terrorists, because force just creates more terrorists; for the trolls, because of first amendment problems and unintended consequences), but both are indications of something seriously wrong with our society. With respect to the internet trolls, this is true on several levels.
First, the most extreme behavior (the death threats and so forth) seems to be evidence of severe untreated mental illness. Normal, healthy, sane people do not go off one day and threaten to shoot people at U.C. Hastings, or gleefully discuss the violent sexual assault of their classmates. I think we have to ask, as a first pass, why those who do have serious mental illnesses are going untreated.
Second, I think we have to ask what is going on in the lives of those who don’t have some organic brain malfunction, such that they’re moved to engage in such horrible conduct. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that something very bad must have been done to these people, to bring about the kind of rage and irrationality that drives this behavior. By doing this, I don’t mean to deny that there are wicked people in the world — simply that we can so easily dismiss wicked behavior as the result of some kind of sui generis evil. This is doubly the case when the wicked behavior is personally irrational. Recall that people on these internet sites often have their identities “outed,” and thus are running extreme personal, social, academic, and economic risk by posting their horrible diatribes and threats. This isn’t wicked behavior for personal gain. It’s pure outburst. And I don’t see how we can explain it without appealing to some kind of stunting of the human spirit, to something that happened to these people to kill their senses of empathy or inflict some kind of horrible bitterness and anger on them.***
Third, I think we have to ask why they’re getting into our communities of trust. I think it’s safe to say that the sort of person who is disposed to post horrible racial slurs on an internet messageboard is a person with very terrible character. Regardless of whether autoadmit or sites like it exist — regardless of whether the opportunity exists to act on that disposition — even having the disposition ought to be a disqualifier from being admitted to law school, and certainly from ever practicing law. So how is it that our screening methods are failing?**** Let’s remember that one of the plaintiffs, who was being stalked by her classmates, was at Yale Law School. It’s not easy to get into that place!
That is, like a good liberal, I think that the only way to take care of the problem of the internet trolls is to look to the root causes.***** Diseases like autoadmit don’t arise out of nowhere — things have to be going wrong with society as a whole in order to create groups of people who do such horrible things. And only by fixing society as a whole can we avoid the costs and unintended consequences of solving social problems with legal rules.
* For complicated reasons, I’m doing some light research on the economic/legal/church history of Medieval Ireland at the moment. One absolutely fascinating thing I’ve learned is that even commoners there had strong privacy rights — there are legal tracts from the period before England’s conquest that specify the fine to be paid for looking in someone’s house, for example. Privacy isn’t just a contemporary American obsession.
** For those who are fortunately innocent of the whole story, autoadmit is a website where a bunch of horrible law students would do things like take pictures of female classmates in the gym and post them, along with details of the rapes they’d like to commit against them, racial slurs, etc. etc. Also threats of mass murder.
*** In this context, I think the following 2 paragraphs, from a NYT article on the subject, are revealing:
A flat-screen HDTV dominated Fortuny’s living room, across from a futon prepped with neatly folded blankets. This was where I would sleep for the next few nights. As Fortuny picked up his cat and settled into an Eames-style chair, I asked whether trolling hurt people. “I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Oh, God, please forgive me!’ so someone can feel better,” Fortuny said, his calm voice momentarily rising. The cat lay purring in his lap. “Am I the bad guy? Am I the big horrible person who shattered someone’s life with some information? No! This is life. Welcome to life. Everyone goes through it. I’ve been through horrible stuff, too.”
“Like what?” I asked. Sexual abuse, Fortuny said. When Jason was 5, he said, he was molested by his grandfather and three other relatives. Jason’s mother later told me, too, that he was molested by his grandfather. The last she heard from Jason was a letter telling her to kill herself. “Jason is a young man in a great deal of emotional pain,” she said, crying as she spoke. “Don’t be too harsh. He’s still my son.”
**** This is why I think that it’s entirely appropriate that the creator of the autoadmit.com message board got a job offer revoked when it all hit the media. Not to punish him — but because we ought not to have lawyers — or anyone in a position of trust — who have such severe failings of character and judgment.
***** However, I really wish people wouldn’t use that phrase. It’s a redundancy as well as a cliche.