Recently, Google employee James Damore was fired for quite rationally and politely expressing his analysis, on a company-sponsored forum, of perceived biological differences between men and women. It seems that his comments did not comport with the politically correct views of Google’s management, so he was punished.
Now a similar issue has arisen in an private school in MO, where a group of students are under investigation by school administration for alleged “racist, profane and sexual” comments made in a private conversation on Snapchat.
Another student who, according to news stories, was not a member of the private Snapchat group and therefore not supposed to be privy to the other students’ conversations, took screenshots of their comments, posted the images on Twitter, and then forwarded the images to school administrators with this “charge”:
The school says it will indeed discipline the students, based upon the belief that this alleged “hate speech,” once made public, damaged the “school community.” An administrator also said that parents should teach their children that “digital media is public and permanent.”
The NAACP weighed in, arguing for the expulsion of the offending students, who are only about 14 years old, being freshman. Zero tolerance. One misstep and offenders must be destroyed (depending, of course, upon who they are).
The thing about Snapchat is that it is not “public and permanent.” The conversation was a private chat. Private.
Snapchat, by design, is ephemeral and “self-deleting.” By design, the application makes it difficult to take screenshots, if only because one must catch the image before it self-deletes. Also by design, the application notifies the originator if someone takes a screenshot of his or her posts. It’s difficult, not impossible, to screenshot a Snapchat without notification; but one must jump through hoops to do it.
This entire situation raises questions not only about the bounds of political correctness, censorship, free speech, and privacy rights, but also about when and how the legal system will catch up with new technologies.
Various laws protect private conversations when it comes to recording them, whether in person or over wired telephones. Some laws also speak about “electronic communications,” which would seem to include cell phones or other wireless devices, but seeming doesn’t always make it so. Do Snapchats qualify for privacy protection? Hard for a non-lawyer to determine. If not, when, if ever, will specific laws be enacted to protect “online” conversations that are intended to be private?
Does imaging a Snapchat from someone else’s device violate the Electronic Communications Privacy Act? Again, hard to determine.
At the very least, it seems like an invasion of privacy–akin to eavesdropping or wire-tapping–to capture a private chat that by design is supposed to be ephemeral and self-deleting, preserve the content, and publicize it, holding participants up to ridicule (at best), mainstream media publicity, public condemnation, and eventual punishment. These are children, after all.
Suppose someone planted a bug in another person’s home or car and recorded something politically incorrect that, if publicized, triggered distress and offense in a work or school community. Who, then, caused the distress, which would not have occurred but for publication of the private conversation?
Can words be considered “hate speech” if they’re spoken or written in private, with no intention whatsoever to target any individual?
Suppose students privately discuss and repeat racist and sexist lyrics from popular songs over Snapchat. If another student is offended, will the participants of that conversation be punished?
Suppose students simply listen to music that contains offensive sexist or racist epithets in the privacy of their own homes. Is this allowed or will it, too, be punished if publicized?
The problem with this trend is easy to see.
We’ve been told that students, no matter how young, have constitutional rights. It’s harder to punish students in public schools for their speech than in private schools, just as it’s easier for a private company to fire someone because of his or her speech than for a government agency to do so.
This post isn’t intended to condone the language used by the students in question, nor to dismiss the difficulty of the conundrum now faced by school administrators, once placed in this minefield of a situation.
The issues of concern for this post are the capture, publication, and dissemination of private speech, with punishment soon to be meted out to those who made the comments (or jokes) in private.
Where will this trend end?
What’s next? Thought crime?
If the trend continues, whatever you or your children say in private may some day cause you or your children to be treated like modern-day Hester Prynnes.
Are you ready to have your private speech policed by a contemporary version of Javert, perhaps to some day be forced to, if only figuratively, wear a Scarlet Letter so that you, too, can be publicly shamed and punished for ill-advised speech?