17 November 2010

Free Speech versus Privacy: Online Sex Journals

Stephen Kershnar
Online Sex Autobiographies: Privacy versus Free Speech
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 15, 2010

An issue that has arisen and will become increasingly more important is whether Americans have the right to keep some information private. This issue arises when two freedoms, free speech and privacy, smash into each other.

The issue is nicely illustrated by a Duke University graduate, Karen Owen, who wrote a fake Senior Honors Thesis in May 2010, shortly after graduating. She sent it to three friends. In September 2010, a friend forwarded it to others and the thesis went viral. The thesis is entitled, “An education beyond the classroom: excelling in the realm of horizontal academics.” Written in the form of a series of case studies, she sets out a rating system to evaluate men’s sexual performance and then assesses the performance of thirteen Duke athletes. The specific rating is based on a number of factors (for example, physical appearance, sexual talent and creativity, and enjoyable personality) that are nicely laid out. About half the men got bad ratings and a few got terrible ratings.

Owen is likely extremely bright. In addition to getting into Duke, which has roughly the same admission standards as the Ivy League, her thesis is clearly written, organized, and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny.

The issue arises whether the men could sue her, especially those who got low grades. One person can sue another for the public disclosure of embarrassing private facts. According to Oklahoma State University professor Joey Senat, for the person suing to prevail, he must prove that the defendant publicized a non-newsworthy, private fact about him that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person. The fact must be so intimate that publication outrages the public’s sense of decency.

Courts have held that public figures have less of a right to privacy because information about them is a more legitimate public concern. The courts have held that a person need not intend to put himself into the public eye to be a public figure. Senat’s example comes from Sipple v. Chronicle Publishing Co. (Calif. App. Ct. 1984). In that case, a former Marine sergeant deflected a gun during an attempt to assassinate former President Gerald Ford. The sergeant became a public figure despite not intending to do so. When a publication stated that he was gay, which was true although his Midwest family didn’t know it, the court held that he was a public figure.

Owen could arguably defend herself by claiming that she did not publicly release the information, her friends did. She could also argue that the information would not be highly offensive to a reasonable person. After all, it’s hardly news that star athletes at big-time colleges hook up with groupies. Nor is it news that some get the job done well and some don’t. Owen might defend herself by claiming that the public release did not cause the men legally recognizable harm. She could even argue that the men were public figures. For example, the one who got the worst grade was a Canadian tennis star.

This case is not unique. There are a number of websites that allow people to anonymously reveal sexual details and make various harsh and raunchy observations. On college students, there was JuicyCampus and is now College ACB and Burnbook. Locally, Topix.net allows Fredonia and Dunkirk people to anonymously comment on which locals are promiscuous, business cheats, adulterers, wife-beaters, gay, animal-abusers, and so on. Because the people who write on the site are anonymous, they can be neither sued nor subject to social disapproval.

The notion of a right to privacy in this context is odd. A person doesn’t normally own information. For example, it is hard to imagine that the athletes could sue Owen were she to have given the same information to her priest, therapist, or gynecologist. They couldn’t sue her for defamation if she truthfully described the sex. In addition, were there a right to own information, or at least a right to prevent it from being publicized, it is hard to see why public figures wouldn’t also have it.

If the law is justified by its having good results, then there should be some empirical support for the claim that discouraging the release of this information is more important than preventing bad behavior by publicizing it. I am unaware of any such support. Even the boundary separating public and private concerns is murky. For example, consider the media’s widely publicizing the sex lives of an evangelical preacher (for example, Ted Haggard used meth and hired a male prostitute), a teacher (Mary Kay Letourneau had sex with a 13-year-old student), a car mechanic (Joey Buttafuoco had an affair with 16-year old Amy Fisher, who then shot his wife in the face), and a former pro athlete (for example, Tiki Barber carried on with the babysitter). It is hard to determine why these facts are a matter of public concern, especially given that similar facts about our neighbors are not. Many public figures never consented to expose their sex lives. Arguably, the public learns more about themselves by finding out what their neighbors are up to than what freakish celebrities have done lately.

A critic might respond that we restrict our liberties in other ways to protect privacy reasons and this is no different. For example, criminal voyeurism statutes protect people against being watched or filmed when they undress in places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. Laws against appropriation protect people from having their name or likenesses used in advertisements without their permission.

In addition, there is a sense that the schools and employers are prying into people’s personal lives in invasive ways. Both increasingly search people’s online sites (for example, Facebook), drug test employees and students, and have vague moral-turpitude clauses that can be and sometimes are applied with Church-Lady priggishness.

Still, protecting privacy by shutting down people’s autobiographical observations sacrifices one freedom for another and does not obviously favor the more important one. Hard-to-follow laws requiring people to guess at what is a public concern or what constitutes publicizing information worsen the situation. Also, it is hard not to laugh in the face of those who fret about the loss of privacy and then enthusiastically support the government hunt for those engaged in private behaviors like prostitution, pornography, drugs, online gambling, and so on.

04 November 2010

Voters Pound Democrats: The Wages of Irresponsibility

Stephen Kershnar
Why the Democrats Got Pounded
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 1, 2010

Assuming the projections hold up, yesterday voters pounded the Democrats. The polls show that the voters called them onto the carpet for three reasons: the economy is a mess, government spending is out of control, and political corruption is getting out of hand. The Democrats had it coming.

The first reason Democrats got pounded is that the economy is weak. When the childlike Democrats gained control of both sides of Congress in January 2007, unemployment was at 4.6% and the stock market (Dow Jones Industrial Average) was at roughly 12,600. Almost four years later, the former is at 9.6% and the latter at roughly 11,100. When inflation is taken into account, the stock market has dropped by roughly 15%. A fun thought experiment is to figure out how many years of retirement this cost you. To be fair, the Democrats had a lot of help from the Bush administration.

If anyone doubts the Bush administration loved big government, recall its signature accomplishments. Among them were more medical welfare (Medicare drug coverage), greater restrictions on free speech (McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill), more federal involvement in education (No Child Left Behind), pricey overseas wars (Iraq and Afghanistan wars), expanded government search powers (Patriot Act and related bills), and milquetoast tax cuts. Not exactly a Reagan-like legacy.

The second reason Democrats got pounded is that government involvement in our lives is expanding at breakneck speed. Consider spending. According to www.usgovernmentspending.com, the government in 2010 at all three levels now spends 44% of what is produced in this country (that is, 44% of the GDP). That means that for every $1.00 earned in this country, the government spends 44 cents of it. It now spends $41,219 per household (Heritage Foundation, 2008). Government at all three levels has been growing, but it has exploded (26% growth) over the last three years. This underestimates the role of government because the government controls the economy in part through vast tentacles of regulation. If the combined role of Obama Care and regulation exceeds 6% of the economy, and they likely will, then over half of the economy will be controlled by the government. This makes the economy as much socialist as market-based, despite the protests of effete news commentators.

Consider taxes. The upper middle class (top 25% or roughly $67,000, 2008 figure) pay a marginal rate that is over 40%. Consider a New York resident in this bracket. His marginal tax rate includes a federal income tax of 25-28%, an entitlement tax of 15.3% (Social Security tax 12.4% and Medicare tax 2.9%), and a state income tax rate is 6.85%. This marginal rate does not take into account deductions and credits, but it also doesn’t take into account property, sales, corporate, and sin taxes.

The U.S. has the second highest corporate tax rate in the world. Only Japan beats us and their economy has been in the doldrums for two decades. When state taxes are added, 24 states have rates higher than Japan. Corporations are just collections of taxpayers, so when corporations are taxed this simply means that taxpayers are further bled.

Even on the conservative estimate of the Tax Foundation, taxpayers work for the government from January 1 to April 9 (May 17 if you count deficit spending and you should). This underestimates the taxes on the middle class because the poor and working class (bottom 50% of taxpayers) don’t pay their fair share of the income tax (3% of income-tax revenue), let alone other major taxes. You worked all winter for Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid. At least by the summer, if not the spring, you were working for yourself.

Democrats are irresponsible. In 2010, the government debt is approaching 100% of the economy. Note that 44% of the debt is foreign owned, so reneging on it will likely result in our credit being reduced if not cut off. Because the interest rate on it is roughly 8% (2008 figure), the problem is snowballing. The government ran roughly a 10% deficit in 2009 and will likely run another massive deficit in 2010. It plans on continuing to do so for the few years. The current Congress and President are like a lawyer with a coke problem. This lawyer makes $100,000 a year, owes $100,000 in credit-card debt, and is spending 10% more than he makes with no end in sight. We know how this story is going to end. The same is true if Barney Frank, Charley Rangel, and Brian Higgins were to stay in the majority.

The third reason Democrats got pounded is corruption. It played a smaller role than the above factors, but still mattered. Some voters remembered the illegal activities of scoundrels like Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Maxine Waters (D-CA). The former allegedly failed to pay taxes, committed rent-control crimes, and failed to report income. The latter used her influence to help bail out a bank in which her husband held a sizable stake. Other voters revisited the tawdry kickbacks demanded by Senators Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA) in return for voting for Obama Care. Some voters likely considered the various sleazy benefits given to former Senators Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Ted Stevens (R-AK). Both got favorable treatment or other benefits from people who worked for businesses they regulated. Deserving attention, but not getting it, are the special-interest payoffs that have characterized the careers of government profiteers Joe Biden, Harry Reid, and Michelle Obama. The Republicans were not much better when they were in power, but the Democrats pledged to clean up the sleaziness and then kicked it up a notch.

What is happening in this year’s election is voters have simply had enough. This election is in effect a referendum on Obama and the Democrats and the majority of voters are disgusted. Upon taking power the Republicans should do a few things. First, they should repeal Obama Care. Further socializing medicine (government accounted for about 50% of medical expenditures before the bill) is bad for health care and the economy and politically unpopular.

Second, they should cut Washington spending and stop propping up irresponsible states like New York and California. An across-the-board cut, perhaps 10% initially, would limit the ability of special interests to carve out various protections and reduce the caterwauling about any group receiving unfair treatment. This cut should include sharply reduced defense spending and spending on foreign affairs. The American military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan should be ended and the large number of American troops overseas (for example, those in Germany, Japan, and South Korea) should be yanked back.

Third, the Bush tax cuts, all of them, should be retained and further cuts put in place. Making an American’s work more than a third of the year for others is not just inefficient, it’s immoral.

Fourth, investigate the various criminals in Congress. This might step on some toes. For example, in early 2010, all eight of the open House investigations involved members of the Congressional black caucus. If this caucus, or any other, is loaded up with criminals, they should be exposed. If Obama wants to veto some or all of the policy changes, let him do so. In 2012, voters will be more than glad to open up another can of whoop-ass.