Outing racist speech, shaming racist speakers
posted by Howard Wasserman
Following on my discussion last week about the piece at Jezebel outing racist tweets by random high-schoolers after President Obama’s reelection: Hello There, Racists is a Tumblr that collects and publicizes racist tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, etc., along with identifying information such as name, school (a cursory look at the site suggests that most of those shown are minors), and photograph. (H/T: My colleague Tracy Pearl). The identifying information is put out by the posters themselves on their own social media sites, which makes this slightly different than the Jezebel post, which went digging to find the kids’ schools. The goal of both is to prompt social consequences–professional, athletic, academic–for posting obnoxious ideas. Emily Bazelon at Slate criticizes this sort of crowd-sourced “outing,” arguing 1) public shaming is unlikely to cause them to rethink their ideas or statements and more likely to just make them indignant and 2) teenagers don’t fully understand how exposed they are on social media and the consequences of that. Much depends on whether we believe teenagers understand (or should understand) what ideas are morally wrong and socially unacceptable and thus should bear the consequences, however long-term, of espousing (seemingly proudly, to read some of the posts) such ideas.
Two things to watch going forward:
1) Are some public schools going to find their students on this site and punish them for their posts? And if so, how will those cases play out in court? As I wrote previously, assuming these posts were not written on school time, no coherent conception of student speech would authorize school punishment for this expression.
2) Can the creator of the Tumblr keep the readership on a leash? As this post describes, one of the blogs captured on the Tumblr had to be taken down because threats were made to the subject of the blog. The creator of the Tumblr admonished his readers: “[I]f I get credible reports of threats, I will have to take down this blog. So if you want racists to be exposed, do not be threatening or intimidating.They deserve to lose their jobs and scholarships, but not threats of any kind.” Is this the editor preemptively protecting himself on the off-chance that one of his readers does something stupid (no way he would be legally liable, but what ethically responsible is another story)? Is it possible to engage in this sort of crowd-sourced public shaming without things getting out of hand? Are the shamers likely to be as irresponsible as those they are trying to shame?