There have been some interesting discussions recently about people taking matters into their own hands and shaming others whom they witness committing crimes. A while back, I wrote about the shaming of the dog poop girl, whose picture and personal information were placed on a website after she failed to clean up her dog’s poop on the subway. Kaimi Wenger also had some interesting thoughts about the case here and here, as well as did Marcy Peek in a post about Internet vigilantism. Just the other day, Brooks Holland writes about a case involving the shaming of a NYC subway flasher, where a woman caught a picture of him on her cell phone camera and posted it online.
Fox News now has gotten into the shaming business. An LA Times article states:
Randy and Ronnell Vorick thought La Habra was about as far away as one could get from terrorism. They were wrong.
For the last 2 1/2 weeks, the lives of the couple and their three children have been plunged into an unsettling routine of drivers shouting profanities, stopping to photograph their house and — most recently — spray-painting a slogan on their property.
Their house, a suburban fixer-upper the Voricks bought three years ago, was wrongly identified in a cable news broadcast as the home of a terrorist. . . .
In what Fox News officials concede was a mistake, John Loftus, a former U.S. prosecutor, gave out the address Aug. 7, saying it was the home of a Middle Eastern man, Iyad K. Hilal, who was the leader of a terrorist group with ties to those responsible for the July 7 bombings in London.
Hilal, whom Loftus identified by name during the broadcast, moved out of the house about three years ago. But the consequences were immediate for the Voricks.
Satellite photos of the house and directions to the residence were posted online. The Voricks told police, who arranged for the content to be taken down. Someone even removed the street sign where the Voricks live to provide some protection.
This Fox News incident raises the problems with condoning or facilitating people taking the law into their own hands and attempting to shame people by disseminating their personal information. There’s little due process in these endeavors and often shoddy and incomplete fact checking. How can we prevent innocent people from being wrongfully labeled as criminals? Moreover, the shaming incidents inspire a kind of mob justice, and they can lead to violence. As for Fox News, it has apologized for the incident:
“John Loftus has been reprimanded for his careless error, and we sincerely apologize to the family,” said Fox spokeswoman Irena Brigante. Loftus also apologized and told The Times last week that “mistakes happen.”
“I’m terribly sorry about that. I had no idea. That was the best information we had at the time,” he said.
But the problem with the apology is not just that the address was wrong. It is with Loftus’s eagerness to facilitate vigilante justice. The problem with vigilantism is that it often leads to more problems than it cures. Bernie Goetz isn’t somebody we want to bring back.
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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.