Tuesday, October 15, 2013

More Legal Fallout From Anonymous Internet Postings

In 2011, five New Orleans police officers were convicted of civil rights violations in the shootings and deaths of several New Orleans residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A few weeks ago, U.S. District Court judge threw out the convictions on the basis of "grotesque prosecutorial misconduct."  Before and during the trial, lawyers in the U.S. Attorney's office that was prosecuting the case posted anonymous online comments to the New Orleans Times Picayune site (nola.com) creating a "prejudicial, poisonous atmosphere." Another lawyer in the Dept. of Justice in Washington DC who had helped prepare the case for trial also posted anonymously to comment on the case.

Lawyers, and certainly prosecutors, are aware that such public comment is against all rules of professional conduct.  Yet, somehow, the anonymity that appears to shield the comments from attribution somehow alter conduct - and not for the better.  I have previously commented on how internet anonymity skews the balance between the liberty of expression and the liberty of privacy.  In this case, it corrupted due process.

I am a staunch supporter of the liberty of expression.  However, I can't for the life of me understand how anonymous expression has value that adds to the discourse.  The old radio show, The Shadow, carried the catch phrase, "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" Anonymity allows the evil to be outed. If you want to speak badly of others or their opinions, you should have the liberty to do so.  But only if you are willing to face the criticism that comes with the expression of your opinions.

If expression is so important (and it is) why do we allow it to be cheapened by anyone's fleeting tawdry ill considered ramblings? Do we allow bills to be introduced in a legislature with anonymous sponsors? Do judges render opinions anonymously? Do doctors render diagnoses anonymously? Do general direct battles anonymously? Newspapers will not print letters to the editor without first making some reasonable effort to verify the source. That has been the journalistic standard for decades - an improvement over the 19th century practice of printing letters with pseudonyms. But on the most groundbreaking technology, we have gone backwards in the theory of valued civilized discourse.

Now, even lawyers can't keep themselves from botching their own cases by blabbing on the internet.

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