Wednesday, April 11, 2007

MySpace - Keep out of the reach of children!

(H/T: Joanne Jacobs)

Every once in awhile we come across something that makes us ask what this world is coming to. Joanne Jacobs points to this article regarding four students who smeared a principal's reputation on MySpace. After being portrayed by these kids as being a pot-smoking, woman-battering alcoholic, the principal is now fighting back by suing those responsible.

One of the participants had already sued the principal. Shortly after the fake MySpace profiles appeared, the school offices contacted MySpace and had them removed. Further actions were taken, and one student (the one suing the principal) was suspended and subsequently moved to an alternative education program. He was carrying a 3.3 GPA at the time.
That complaint argues the school's actions were excessive, violated Layshock's First Amendment free-speech rights, and interfered with his parents' freedom to judge how best to raise and educate their son.
An interesting argument, inasmuch as his parents hadn't exactly been demonstrating a firm grasp of the problem at that time.

I have often spoken out against the evils of a permissive society. It is ridiculous, of course, to try to make this a First Amendment argument. While the First Amendment protects speech, it does not remove natural and legal consequences from that speech. I picked this up from the Law Dictionary at
n. the act of making untrue statements about another which damages his/her reputation. If the defamatory statement is printed or broadcast over the media it is libel and, if only oral, it is slander. Public figures, including officeholders and candidates, have to show that the defamation was made with malicious intent and was not just fair comment.
Strictly speaking (and without a personal knowledge of the facts in evidence) this sure sounds like libel to me. The deeper damage, though, is even more pernicious.

When I was still a lad, my father made it crystal clear to me that if I did something stupid, he fully expected me to take my lumps. (The setting for this discussion was a ticket I'd received for rolling through a stop sign as a new driver. In those days, the first offense was an automatic appearance in traffic court. The judge's first question was, quote: "How do you spell 'stop,' young man?" As if he questioned my public education, or something.) He included in this expectation any jail time I might somehow deserve for such stupidity. I took his meaning to heart, and have tried to follow that guidance throughout my adult career.

These kids were doing something that, to them at that time, seemed like quite a lark. "Hey, ol Mr. Trosch is a pain in the fanny. Let's ruin his career." Actually, their thought processes probably didn't even carry them quite that far. More likely they were only parroting something they'd already seen done, either on TV or by some other kids. I don't think they were knowledgeable enough to think to themselves, "I know, we'll create phony profiles on this dude on MySpace, smear his reputation, and make it hard for him to shake the stigma of what we say for the rest of his career." I know that runs counter to my belief that this really is libel, but I'm not altogether certain that these kids were that smart. For one thing, I doubt whether they've ever used "stigma" in a sentence before. They merely thought it was funny. It probably never occurred to them that it was libelous. I'm hoping it occurs to them now.

More disturbing, from my perspective, is the idea that these kids would have thought something like this was funny in the first place. It isn't. Those who happen to think it is will be the ones to complain the loudest when they find their own lives turned upside down with no power to do anything but live through it. That's where these kids (and their principal) are today; they're trying to live through a nightmare, caused by this relatively simple but unthinking act.

The fact that one of the perpetrators sued because he was made to suffer a consequence would seem to indicate that this particular lesson has not yet been learned. Either by him or by his freedom-seeking parents.

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