Category: Bright Ideas

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2010, The Year in Scholarship

Legal scholarship had so many highlights in 2010.  New articles and books seriously enriched discussions over the course of the year.  Listing them all would of course be an impossible task, but my favorites include Jack M. Balkin’s The Reconstruction Power, Ann Bartow’s A Portrait of the Internet as a Young Man, Joseph Blocher’s Government Viewpoint and Government Speech, M. Ryan Calo’s The Boundaries of Privacy Harm, Jeanne Fromer’s Patentography, James Grimmelmann’s Privacy as Product Safety, Sonia Katyal’s The Dissident Citizen and Property Outlaws: How Squatters, Pirates, and Protestors Improve the Law of Ownership (with Eduardo M. Peñalver), Deborah Hellman’s Money Talks But It Isn’t Speech, Orly Lobel’s The Incentives Matrix: The Comparative Effectiveness of Rewards, Liabilities, Duties and Protections for Reporting Illegality, Michael Madison, Brett Frischmann and Katharine Strandburg’s Constructing Commons in the Cultural Environment, Jon Michaels’s Privatization’s Pretensions, Helen Norton’s The Supreme Court’s Post-Racial Turn Towards a Zero-Sum Understanding of Equality, Martha Nussbaum’s From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law, Paul Ohm’s Broken Promises of Anonymity: Responding to the The Surprising Failure of Anonymization, Frank Pasquale’s Beyond Innovation and Competition: The Need for Qualified Transparency in Internet Intermediaries, Scott Peppet’s Unraveling Privacy: The Personal Prospectus and the Threat of a Full Disclosure Future, Neil Richards’s The Puzzle of Brandeis, Privacy, and Speech (see here as well), Daniel Solove’s Fourth Amendment Pragmatism, Barbara van Schewick’s Internet Architecture and Innovation, David Super’s Against Flexibility, Eugene Volokh’s Freedom of Speech and the Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress Tort, and Jeremy Waldron’s Dignity and Defamation: The Visibility of Hate.

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Avatar Experimentation: Human Subjects Research in Virtual Worlds

I have just posted a (rough) draft of my latest paper, entitled Avatar Experimentation: Human Subjects Research in Virtual Worlds to SSRN.  Virtual worlds make such great research testbeds precisely because people act in a lot of ways (especially economic ways) as if the virtual world were real.  But that complicates ethical research design: you can’t engage in activities that threaten the subject’s digital property or community, for example.  This raises human subjects research issues that a lot of Institutional Review Boards may not immediately take into consideration.  Here’s the abstract — but the important part is that this is still a work-in-progress (it’s coming out in a symposium issue of the U.C. Irvine Law Review next year), and I would love comments or suggestions.

Abstract: Researchers love virtual worlds. They are drawn to virtual worlds because of the opportunity to study real populations and real behavior in shared simulated environments. The growing number of virtual worlds and population growth within such worlds has led to a sizeable increase in the number of human subjects experiments taking place in such worlds.

Virtual world users care deeply about their avatars, their virtual property, their privacy, their relationships, their community, and their accounts. People within virtual worlds act much as they would in the physical world, because the experience of the virtual world is “real” to them. The very characteristics that make virtual worlds attractive to researchers complicate ethical and lawful research design. The same principles govern research in virtual worlds as the physical world. However, the change in context can cause researchers to lose sight of the fact that virtual world research subjects may suffer very real harm to property, reputation, or community as the result of flawed experimental design. Virtual world research methodologies that fail to consider the validity of users’ experiences risk harm to research subjects. This article argues that researchers who put subjects’ interests in danger run the risk of violating basic human subjects research principles.

Although hundreds of articles and studies examine virtual worlds, none has addressed the interplay between the law and best practices of human subjects research in those worlds. This article fills that gap.

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Review: Greg Lastowka’s Virtual Justice

Professor Greg Lastowka, one of the top lawyers writing about virtual worlds, just published his book “Virtual Justice,” from Yale University Press.  I have a more complete review of the book coming out in Jurimetrics pretty soon, but here’s the short version.  Lastowka’s book stands apart from prior efforts in the field because it recognizes that the study of law in virtual worlds is not a niche, but is instead a compelling example of how communities produce law through their encounter with novel technologies.  Lastowka’s core premise is that virtual worlds are cultural spaces that generate law.  His insights reach beyond the technology to produce a narrative about the common law itself.  Technology cases, he notes, are by definition common law cases, because they present novel questions, often fall outside statutes, and invite reasoning by analogy.  Thus, development of law online tracks the path of the common law elsewhere.  Communities generate norms, which are adopted by judges, and finally codified by legislatures.  Lastowka’s book offers a compelling and foundational narrative of how law is currently being formed at the very edge of cyberspace.

 However, it is important to properly understand the interface between virtual worlds and law precisely because virtual communities will have such a great impact on real law.  Therefore, I do offer two critiques of Lastowka’s premises regarding virtual worlds as games.  First, Lastowka argues that law defers to game rules because games lie outside of ordinary life.  My response is that law defers to players’ consent to suspension of default rules, rather than to game rules.  Consent, not the rulebook, is the important legal element for me.   Lastowka’s second argument is that games ought to be exempt from law because they are not economic activity—that is, that games are “pure waste.”  But it seems to me that both the designers who make games and the players who play them are in fact maximizing their social welfare: just as going to the opera creates value for both actors and audience, game designers and game players increase overall social utility by respectively creating and paying to play a game.  Thus, while Lastowka has done a masterful job in writing a foundational document for the field, the conversation about how law should interface with virtual worlds is just beginning in earnest.

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Baron on Leiter on Empirical Legal Studies

A few weeks ago I was on the train home, reading an old piece of scholarship from one of my favorite colleagues at Temple, Jane Baron.  Jane is well-known for her work on law and literature, the rhetoric of property/T&E, and interdisciplinary studies more generally.  The particular piece that I read on the train was “Interdisciplinary Scholarship as Guilty Pleasure: The Case of Law and Literature” (Law & Literature, 1999).   Jane’s observations about law and literature were strikingly relevant to the blog debate this summer which Brian Leiter instigated in his post “So-Called ‘Empirical Legal Studies.”  That debate was fierce, but no one made the precise point that Jane appears to have anticipated over a decade ago.  So I asked her to comment for us on Leiter & ELS. Here’s what she had to say.


“I arrived late to the debate Brian Leiter stirred up in his summer post on “So-Called ‘Empirical Legal Studies,’” whose incendiary title alone probably irritated self-identified ELS scholars. Of course, I’m not an ELS scholar, and frankly I have my own share of axes to grind about ELS. All those annoying numbers, data points, p’s and n’s—no one writes prose well enough to make those methods sections interesting to read. And I have already had my fill of faculty candidates with inchoate and incoherent ideas for adding an unspecified “empirical” component to their research—meaning they would count something if they could think of something to count.

But even given my own frustrations with ELS, two things particularly struck me about Leiter’s post. One was his assertion that the skill level of ELS scholars was “low, or at least lower than the typical . . . law & philosophy interdisciplinary scholar of yesteryear.” Considering Leiter’s 1992 characterization of then-extant law and philosophy scholarship as “intellectual voyeurism,” the insult to contemporary ELS is perhaps even stronger than many current ELS scholars might have realized.

The second thing that struck me was Leiter’s assertion that the ELS “mutual-admiration society” might be “disconnected from the central normative and conceptual questions of legal scholarship and legal education.” I think the challenge here was intended to provoke ELS scholars to show that their work does connect to those questions. Josh Wright has written thoughtfully on this question and probably lots of other folks have as well.

But I think it’s worth asking some different questions: why are we to assume that there are “central normative and conceptual questions of legal scholarship and legal education”? And should we be sure, as Leiter seems to be, that “smarts on your feet, the ability to draw conceptual distinctions, [and] construct and deconstruct arguments . . . are the . . . intellectual skills . . . needed in law”?

As I explored in earlier work, the compare-and-contrast analysis of interdisciplinary work constructs the very fields being dissected. In the realm of law and literature, for example, the tendency is to contrast the (allegedly) rich, textured, emotional realm of the literary with the (allegedly) dry, abstract, logical realm of the legal. This formulation effectively defines law as a pure domain of rules—a domain in which Langdell himself would have been happy to dwell.

But of course not all literature is morally rich (pick your favorite noire novel). And not all law is dry or abstract (pick your favorite opinion). We can depict literature as a form of plenitude and law as a form emptiness, but do we really want to?

In his ELS post, Leiter employs the inside/outside trope, to similar effect. He puts the ability to react fast, analyze arguments, and address ‘normative and conceptual questions’ inside law, and the ability to crunch numbers and analyze data outside law. But we can all think of some number crunching that is clearly inside law (B=P x L anybody?) and surely someone as intellectually accomplished as Leiter can’t mean to assert that there are no normative or conceptual questions outside law.

I am not just quibbling over words here. The question whether (all or some of) ELS work is good legal scholarship implicates the important question of what counts as “legal.” We can define law as a realm composed entirely (or centrally) of conceptual and normative questions. But we don’t have to. Indeed, at least some ELS work is designed to demonstrate that the normative questions that are ostensibly central in legal analysis are not in practice determinative, so that the “law” we thought we knew is not the “law” with which judges and practitioners work. Maybe that work is persuasive, and maybe it’s not. But at least that work is sensitive to the problem of defining law’s realm, a problem Leiter’s post assumes away.”

Thanks, Jane!

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Scholarship 2.0: The New Frontier?

I have been advising the Maryland Law Review for some time now and this year’s Board has been particularly creative in their thinking about scholarship and its potential impact.  They have an interesting idea for the future of legal scholarship, one that I believe worth sharing and discussing. The Maryland Law Review currently publishes in print and online professional and student pieces and would like to ensure that the pieces facilitate ongoing dialogue.   In a turn that I will call Scholarship 2.0, the Maryland Law Review would like to harness interactive technologies on their website to permit readers to engage with the work and to post videos on the topic.  As the Board has explained to me, they would like to to use technology “not only to spread the ideas expressed in the pieces, but also to provide an opportunity for the work to change, grow, and evolve as more people are exposed and have a chance to contribute to the conversation.”

To that end, the Maryland Law Review will soon begin to utilize technologies to begin that conversation, including posting videos of interviews with professor, or taped debates between them, regarding articles.  Readers will have a chance to take part in the conversation through a Comment feature.  As the Editor in Chief Maggie Grace and Senior Online Articles Editor Ted Reilly told me: “The best products of academia are not closed from debate or question, but rather are discussed, challenged, and strengthened by wider discourse.  It is our hope that with the addition of these technologies we can foster dialogues that help viewers pose questions, challenge accepted notions, share novel ideas, and develop a greater understanding of law and its application.”  How else might the Maryland Law Review put this idea into practice?  Any thoughts or suggestions for my enterprising students?

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BRIGHT IDEAS: Zach Schrag’s Ethical Imperialism

Zachary Schrag, a professor of history at George Mason, has graciously agreed to join us today to talk about his fantastic book, Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965–2009 [buy your hard copy, or get a Kindle version].  Professor Schrag’s work came onto my radar when he wrote a good comment to my post about IRBs and caselaw research, and I’ve since become a regular reader of his Institutional Review Blog.  In Ethical Imperialism, Schrag argues that the modern university IRB is the product of a series of historical accidents and reactive, bureaucratic, mission creep, coupled with a failure by academics and their professional organizations to push back against bad government policy. The book was persuasively argued, and provides a very nice and nuanced history of a modern bureaucracy & its attendant regulatory rules, quite apart from the importance of the subject for those of us who have to work with IRBs directly.  After the jump, you’ll find a Q&A about the book, which I think is a must read for folks who want to understand the IRB system.

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BRIGHT IDEAS: Collins on Justice Holmes and Free Speech

In his new book, The Fundamental Holmes: A Free Speech Chronicle and Reader (Cambridge University Press, 2010), Ronald Collins guides us through the free speech writings of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.   Ron is the Harold S. Shefelman scholar at the University of Washington School of Law and a fellow at the Washington, D.C., office of the First Amendment Center.

Ron’s book contains numerous excerpts from Holmes’s great judicial opinions, correspondence, essays, and books.  Far from composing the book mainly of excerpts, Ron has provided very extensive commentary and background throughout.  Ron is steeped in the history of his subject and has a rich understanding of the law and theory of the First Amendment.  There is no better guide to help us understand Holmes’s work and thought as it relates to free speech.

I recently had a chance to talk with Ron about the book.

SOLOVE: What inspired you to write this book?

COLLINS: Long story.  It began when I was in law school and read Holmes’s 1919 free speech opinions.  And then, not long afterwards, I read Max Lerner’s The Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes (1943), which fascinated me though it was quite dated by that time.  This was in the 1970s when I was an impressionable law student.  Several years later I met Max – incredible Renaissance man! – and befriended him and then helped him, in 1988-89, with a new and expanded edition of his Holmes book.  That combined with my work in the First Amendment made this latest book a natural for me, though I don’t worship Holmes.  True, he challenged my mind, and I like that sort of thing even when I disagree with someone.

SOLOVE: During the course of immersing yourself in Holmes’s writings, what is the most surprising thing you learned?

COLLINS: There are so many things; Holmes was such a complex man.  Long before I began my book, I knew quite a bit about his First Amendment work, including his pre-1919 Supreme Court opinions.  So, not much surprise there.  I guess I would say I was quite taken by his Civil War experience and how that had such a remarkable impact on his life, jurisprudence, and view of free speech, too. It was the dye that colored everything in the beaker of his thought.

SOLOVE: Personally, what would you consider to be the five most significant writings by Justice Holmes?

COLLINS: Hard call.  But here they are, in no special order:

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Hypotheticals, the Classroom, and Moral Biology

Hypotheticals are a ubiquitous pedagogical tool in both the law and philosophy classrooms. I have recently been thinking about the different functions they serve and whether they are well-suited for the weight we give them. These reflections were prompted by a conference on “Moral Biology,” hosted by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School (which I co-direct), in cooperation with The Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School, the Gruter Institute, the Harvard Program on Ethics and Health, and the MacArthur Law and Neuroscience Project.

I may blog a little bit later about some other of the marvelous things I learned over these two days, but for now I wanted to concentrate on some thoughts that stemmed from a public portion of the conference that can be seen here, involving Josh Greene from Harvard’s Psychology Department, William Fitzpatrick from the University of Rochester’s Philosophy Department, Adina Roskies from Dartmouth’s Philosophy Department, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong from Duke’s Philosophy Department, and Tim Scanlon, from Harvard’s philosophy department.

At around the 43 to 50 minute mark in the video, Josh discusses Trolley Problems (which ask participants a thought experiment about whether to divert a trolley from one track to another with many versions of the hypothetical) and an experiment done on them by Fiery Cushman (and a collaborator, Switzgable I believe, I could not find the actual paper) in Josh’s lab.  In the experiment, before being asked whether they would endorse the principle of double effect, ethicists with PhDs were asked to reason about variants of the Trolley problem (switch vs. footbridge) presented in different orders. The experiment found that if one varied the order in which the versions were presented (but always presented all of them,) ethicists reached different conclusions about whether they would endorse the principle. [This is Josh's description in the video, again if anyone can find the paper he is discussing I will try and like to that].  The result is surprising in that it appears even those with PhD training in ethics are susceptible to order effects in reasoning about a very fundamental issue.

As Josh concedes, and others (in the panel and in written pieces discussing his work emphasize) the fact that these ordering effects occur is not itself fatal to the enterprise of philosophical analysis using intuitions. It depends on further views about how one uses these kinds of intuitions in the analysis. For present purposes, though, I want to partially side-step that question in favor of thinking about the law classroom, and how this experiment might should us a little more careful about the way we use hypotheticals.

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Mechanical Turk, Research Ethics, and Research Assistants

A recent faculty workshop by my witty and brilliant colleague Jonathan Zittrain on “ubiquitous human computing,” (this youtube video captures in a different form what he was talking about ), prompted me to thinking about some ways in which platforms like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, interface with university research and research ethics in interesting ways.

For those unfamiliar, Mechanical Turk allows you to farm out a variety of small tasks (label this image, enter date of this .pdf to a spreadsheet, take a photo of yourself with the sign “will turk for food,” etc) at a price per unit you set. Millions of anonymous users can then do the task for you and collect the bounty, a form of microwork.

As Jonathan detailed, this raises a host of fascinating issues, but I want to focus on two that are closer to bioethics.

First, I have begun to see some legal academics recruiting populations for experimental work using Mechanical Turk, and there is an emerging literature on the pros and cons of subject recruitment from these populations. Are Mechanical Turkers “research subjects” within the legal (primarily the Common Rule if one receives federal funding) or broader ethical sense of the term? Should they be? Take as a tangible example the implicit bias research of the kind Mahzarin R. Banarji has made famous, and imagine it was done over something like Mechanical Turk. How (if at all) should the anonymity of the subject, the lack of subject-experimenter relationship of any sort, the piecemeal nature of the task, etc, change the way an institutional review board reviews the research? It is a mantra in the research ethics community that informed consent is supposed to be a “process” not a document, but how can that process take place in this anonymous static cyberspace environment?

Second, consider research assistance.

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BRIGHT IDEAS: Mike Sacks on Supreme Court Reporting from the Front Lines

Sometime before commencement of the Supreme Court’s 2009 term, Mike Sacks, a third-year law student at Georgetown University, had an idea.  Taking advantage of his close living proximity to the Court, Mike would attempt to be the first one in line for all of the major oral arguments for the Court’s term. In addition, he would interview people in line about why they were there and their impressions of the Court and the case to be argued. And, most importantly, he would start a blog to report on his experiences. Mike has been engaging in legal journalism from a unique vantage point: from the front lines — or, from the “front of the line” — of the Supreme Court. Mike’s bright idea has resulted in a successful Supreme Court blog, First One @ One First.  [Recall Mike’s mission to be the “first one” in line at “One First” Street NE (the Court’s address).] Click HERE for the blog’s mission statement. Mike’s experiences and blogging have been featured in the New York Times (see HERE as well), National Public Radio, the ABA Journal, the Washington Post’s WhoRunsGov/PostPolitics, The Atlantic, Slate, Volokh Conspiracy, Above the Law, and other outlets.

Mike’s blogging has also launched the beginning of what is likely to be a successful career in legal journalism. In fact, Mike wrote the cover story for last week’s issue of the Christian Science Monitor.  He has also been blogging at some premier legal blogs. Below, Mike answers some of my questions about his reporting experiences, his impressions of the Court’s term, and his perspective on the Supreme Court in general.

1.  Could you talk briefly about how and why you came up with this idea of what might be called “legal journalism from the front lines?”

Because Concurring Opinions is more of an academic blog, I’ll start with F1@1F’s intellectual underpinnings.  As the Citizens United rehearing approached last September, I noticed that the Roberts Court’s dockets and decisions from OT06 through OT08 appeared to track the surrounding political climate.  Once so boldly conservative on all the hot buttons when operating under the cover of Republican-controlled Legislative and Executive branches, the Roberts Court–now operating alongside Democratic political branches–appeared to have shaped an exceedingly modest OT09 docket so to have enough political capital to spend on Citizens United without irreparably damaging the Court’s institutional legitimacy.

I wanted to test my hypothesis that the Roberts Court was not only sensitive, but also responsive, to its surrounding political climate. Of course, I could have done this by reading transcripts of oral argument and digging through the decisions once released.  But I lived four blocks from the Court and had already had a blast camping out for Citizens United / Sotomayor’s first day.  When I noticed I had no morning classes for the Spring Term on the Court’s argument days, I really decided to make this an in-the-flesh project.

But I wouldn’t have followed through so thoroughly had I not had vocational motivations as well.  I entered law school very interested in constitutional law, politics, and media.  After my first year, I interned for Nina Totenberg at NPR.  That was the summer of Heller and Boumediene.  I so enjoyed that experience that I took a semester off to work at ABC News’s Law & Justice Unit in New York, where I covered the legal aspects of the 2008 Presidential Election and the Wall Street meltdown.  Once back at school and on the job market, I thought there was no better way to make myself attractive to both legal and media employers than to build a body of work on the Supreme Court beat.

Nevertheless, just another person writing about the Court out in the ether wouldn’t have been too compelling.  But getting out in line at disturbingly early hours and telling the tales of those crazy enough to join me – now that’s something no one had ever done. Indeed, if the Court is responsive to the political climate, and if public opinion on any given case is the “weather” that shapes our broader climate, then I figured those who cared enough to get out in line on bitterly cold mornings well before the sun came up would make a very good representative sample for the people who shape public opinion.  By asking these folk, “why are you here?”, I would be committing interesting journalism while also informing my research about the Roberts Court.

2.   What unique insights have your experiences over the past term given you about the Supreme Court and the justices?

Chief Justice Roberts is a superb political strategist.  He’s steering a right-of-center Court through a left-of-center government and knows which storms his ship can handle and which it cannot.  I wrote prospectively about this back in December, Jeff Rosen of The New Republic wrote about it in February, and Adam Liptak of the New York Times wrote about it just the other day.

What we’ve seen this year is the birth of John Roberts’ Court.  It will always, to a degree, remain the Anthony Kennedy Court as well, until he leaves the bench or one of the conservatives is replaced by a liberal.  But Roberts took control this year in the Court’s decisionmaking that we haven’t yet seen.  The next interesting thing to look out for is what issues beyond Miranda, guns, arbitration, and campaign finance the Chief believes are ripe for conservative gains as the Congress and the Presidency remain in Democratic hands.
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