Category: Sociology of Law

9

Dateline Perverted Justice: Pedophilia That The Market (And Judith Butler) Can Appreciate

The NY Times has an interesting article today about Perveted Justice, the group that Dateline has adopted as a highly profitable vehicle for purveying mass anxiety about child sexual offenders. As many people have noticed by now, Dateline has neatly repositioned itself as an ongoing documentary about the battle to ferret out internet pedophiles. Perverted Justice volunteers troll the web, trying to draw in adults who seek hook-ups with kids. Dateline then sets up shop, waiting to capture these faux-meetings on video.

The article notes that this is lucrative business for everyone. Perverted Justice gets $70,000 for every hour of Dateline content. Clearly NBC is raking in the bucks, drawing over 9 million viewers per Pedo-Dateline, as opposed to their usual net of 7 million viewers for other Dateline episodes. And Dateline already has six more “episodes” of Pedo-Dateline in the pipeline for 2007. In Threatened Children and Random Violence, Joel Best explored how child protection activists have developed both economically and politically by tapping into longstanding public conern over child abuse – and particularly child sexual abuse. (Phillip Jenkins has offered related insignts in his book, Moral Panic.) Yet the explicit commercial trade in this anxiety – always present to the degree that such sex panics provide fodder to the daily news outlets – has never been clearer than here.

At the same time, the Times piece notes that some people are concerned that the very act of publicly pursuing and villifying these individuals effectively creates a new form of sexualized text, because by putting the transcripts of these conversations online, the group puts “out for unfiltered, unrestricted public consumption the most graphic sexual material that they themselves say is of a perverted nature.” Judith Butler, in Excitable Speech, makes the point that prohibition and desire are intertwined:

Prohibition pursues the reproduction of prohibited desire and becomes itself intensified through the renunciations it effects… .The prohibition not only sustains, but is sustained by, the desire that it forces into renunciation.

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Law & Technology Theory

prometheus.jpgI just wanted to plug a new forum that Gaia Bernstein, Jim Chen, and I recently launched–Law & Technology Theory. The big question we’re addressing is whether our experience of past regulation of technologies teaches generalizable lessons for future policy. Gaia has nicely summarized some of the key issues we’ll be considering:

Whether [a theory of law & technology] should have broad principles that apply to all technologies or whether it should offer narrower principles relevant to different categories of technologies?

[Can we] formulate a theory that differentiates on the basis of the social values or institutions a new technology destabilizes?

Our “virtual symposium” will host an international group of scholars with a wide range of theoretical commitments. We’ll be publishing the proceedings in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, and Technology this Spring. We hope you’ll consider reading and commenting as the discussion progresses. (Some of us will also be at the IASTS conference in Baltimore this February.)

By the way, on a completely untheoretical note, I have to say that the travel time involved in this symposium is great–zero! By developing a forum somewhere between a blog and a conference, we’re trying to promote a new kind of academic exchange. We hope it ends up being a bit more inclusive than the average conference circuit, which can be inhospitable to those who have a tough time traveling.

Art Credit: Elsie Russell, Prometheus (1994).

0

Xoxohth 1.1: The Past and Present

[This is Part I, Section 1, of the project I announced here. The goal of today’s installment is to set out the history of the XO board, and briefly describe its present statistics.]

goldencalf.jpgHugs and Kisses, Hope this Helps

The genesis of XO was less gripping, bloody, tortured, significant and miraculous than the Exodus, a tale which it otherwise resembles in important respects.

The community started as a group of posters at the Princeton Review Discussion Board [PR]. Some individuals began at PR in 1997-1998, as they were applying to college, and continued posting in that forum after matriculation. The reason that people spent time – sometimes 20 hours a week or more – at PR will become familiar:

Before I started law school, I posted on the former incarnation of xoxo (which was then run by the Princeton Review) because it was a wide-open and mostly unmanaged discussion. In one sitting I could have the most sober and serious conversations as well as the most silly and immature b******* sessions, all with the same group of people. The other, more “mature” boards were by comparison intellectual wastelands, partly because they were so “sober” and “mature.” All the really smart people shunned those boring boards in favor of pr (now xoxo).

But not all individuals were looking for information: some were actually, weirdly, (slumming) older alumni.

The standard foundation story holds that in March, 2004, PR switched to a new software format that users found irritating because it (1) enabled IP tracking; (2) discouraged use of multiple aliases; (3) discouraged abusive language through moderation and banning; and (4) eliminated the “‘tree’ format and switching to a vBulletin-type format that was heavily despised by most users.” See here and here and here for some posts from the period. One emailer explains:

The only moderators were Jeff Adams, a Princeton Review employee, and TPR Droid, who was a long-time poster that Jeff hired to moderate the board when he wasn’t around. Anger at TPR Droid’s moderation style was one of the main reasons for the initial rift — while Jeff was even-handed with deletions and bannings, many people felt Droid had an agenda since he would ban people for criticizing his favored posters, or delete racist threads directed at Jews and Christians while refusing to delete equally hateful threads about Muslims.

A group of users decided to leave PR as a group. However,

The law boarders didn’t know about the existence of xoxohth. [A user with the handle Rowan] organized an AIM chat and people were brainstorming ideas of how to re-create the board. I think rk even drafted a letter looking for corporate sponsorship . . . In the very beginning, the law and college boards were one. During those heady first days, all personal wars were called off – Edgar Martinez, Julia, RWA, LawyerBird got along – but soon order was restored and things returned to normal.

Obviously, the domain name had been purchased before problems on the PR board became exigent. According to a WHOIS search, the purchase of the xoxohth domain occurred on January 29, 2004. The buyer was Jarret Cohen, now in business in Pennsylvania. As you can see from this screenshot of the early board, it was intended to be a replacement for the PR community. Contrary to Eugene’s speculations, xoxohth is not a dungeons and dragons reference. It seems to stand for xoxo (hugs and kisses) plus hth (hope this helps).

It is also worth noting that there was an early worry that the former PR community would split into a college (XO) faction and a law faction, located at the JD2B board. A source comments:

[W]hen Marshall [Camp, JD2B’s owner] found out the xo board existed, he not only deleted the JD2B message board, but prominently linked to the board on his site and actively sent traffic our way; basically we were treated as JD2B’s unofficial messageboard.

That site probably accounted for 50-75% of our referring URL traffic in the early days

Organizational Control

Cohen’s – alias Rachmiel – and another user known as Boondocks (from the comics strip?) coded the initial software for the board, which (of course) was unmoderated. Boondocks, I am given to understand, is an African-American man who, though one of XO’s founders, forewent an administrative role after the first two months of the board’s existence.

Instead, in about May, 2004, Anthony Ciolli, a Penn Law student, became partners with Cohen. My sense is that Ciolli – alias “Great Teacher Onizuka” (manga comic reference?) – and Cohen split the board’s revenues 50/50, and share operational control over the permissions on the site.

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0

Xoxohth, Civility, and Prestige: Part I

xoxo.jpgXoxohth claims to be the “most prestigious law school admissions discussion board in the world.” According to its marketing materials, it controls 70% of the online “market” for “higher education and career discussion”, with around 6000 posts a day on various topics. One of its founders reports that the site receives 350,000 to 500,000 unique visitors every month, making it significantly more trafficked than any other law blog, with the exception of Volokh. (By comparison, we get 60-70K unique hits a month.)

But.

Among many legal scholars and administrators, there is a shared impression that discussion at XO is overrun by sexist, racist, anti-semitic, and just plain foolish talk. The well-known Leiter-XO engagement (see here) is just one example, but it isn’t alone. Based on correspondence, I have learned that multiple law school deans and assistant deans have dealt with the Board when trying to mediate online disputes involving their school’s students. XO has been threatened with legal action (at least twice) involving alleged defamation on the board, although the site is not, to my knowledge, involved in pending litigation. Some wish the entire XO discussion board was a hoax (although others think it may be providing a public service) and some, well, some are mad as hell:

If this is what other lawyers are going to be like, I want out. They make us all look like utter a[*******]. People should avoid law school because it sucks, not because of these jerks.

I’ve written a bit about the Board before, in the context of a US News citation dispute, and since then, I’ve been in contact with one of the Board’s administrators, Anthony Ciolli, a 3L at Penn Law. I think the board is pretty fascinating, primarily because its anonymity enables, and its format records, discussions among rising lawyers that are frank and heterodox (in legal culture) with respect to race, gender relations, and professional development. It isn’t the only forum for such discussions, but it may be the largest.

In subsequent posts, I will be exploring three basic questions about XO.

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3

Pay the Poor to Be Citizens

money.jpgA colleague suggests that there might be a relationship between a series of seemingly random observations:

  • A sudanese cell-phone billionaire announced a prize for good governance, to be awarded to current African leaders when they step down from office. According to news reports, “each leader awarded the prize will receive $5 million spread over 10 years after leaving office. If still alive when the initial prize is exhausted, prize-winners will receive another $200,000 annually until they die.”
  • The Arizona Voter Reward Act, which would establish a $1,000,000 prize whose proceeds would go to a randomly-selected voter, is on November 7th’s ballot. The state’s Chamber of Commerce is opposed: Harvard’s Info/Law project is more open minded. Most think the law would be plainly illegal preempted by federal law even if passed.
  • Jury pay rates are embarassingly low, if meant to be compensatory. Some jurisdictions are funding pilot projects to study if pay raises will increase compliance with jury service.

Here is the question for debate: is there any meaningful way to distinguish the African prize (which many legal commentators no doubt would celebrate) from the voting and jury service problems? Or, more provocatively, are the powerful the only people who we will allow to make money from being good citizens?

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12

Law School Admissions Standards As Law

Harvard’s decision to end its early admission program was the big story early week. As President Bok explained, the university worried about the social consequences of its admissions process:

“Students from more sophisticated backgrounds and affluent high schools often apply early to increase their chances of admission, while minority students and students from rural areas, other countries, and high schools with fewer resources miss out . . . . Others who apply early and gain admission to the college of their choice have less reason to work hard at their studies during their final year of high school.”

Harvard’s decision got me to thinking about the relationship between admissions standards at high-prestige universities and legal rules.

Both legal rules and admissions standards are conduct shaping regulations. When you set admissions standards to select for trait behavior X, the prevalence of X in the applicant universe will increase. Such an increase will not be uniform, for the reasons that Bok gives, and there will be further distortions depending on individual (or mass) psychology. But there are reasons to believe that law school admissions address a particularly sophisticated and resource-rich audience, who are well suited to governance. Thus, law school admissions are ripe for evaluation as a form of law itself.

I thought about this after talking with a friend last night who told me about business schools’ strong emphasis on community service as a part of the application of a well-rounded applicant. This probably creates a class of business school students who are more likely to be civic-minded after graduation. But it also (and more simply) results in a great deal of public service by pre-MBA types in the world. The question is: why don’t law schools use the application process to improve the world too?

You might object: “this is paternalistic social engineering.” Yes, yes it is. But law schools, like HLS, already require onerous mandatory pro bono commitments during school. The problem with such programs is that the incentives are all wrong – toward clock management instead of results. But if you made pro bono service an important part of the admissions decision, and suggested that particularly effective public service would be highly weighted, then you’d set folks incentives well to achieve good. Elite schools might collude to create a list of potential law-related public work that candidates would be “well-advised” to perform in order to increase their chances of admission: volunteering for a public interest firm or tax law clinic; working for the PD or DA as a part-time investigator; assisting social security ALJs as a paralegal, etc.

To be clear, I don’t mean to say that admissions committees aren’t already considering public service. Surely, they are. But they aren’t communicating the idea that public service counts in a meaningful way. Check out HLS’ admissions FAQ, and note the silence on this point. The silence is shared by other top schools. The point is that law faculties (at least those I’ve seen) have traditionally seen the admissions committee as wearing a judicial, rather than legislative, hat. As a result, faculty might tend to think of admissions as a necessary chore accomplished by the folks who run the operations side of the school, instead of an extension of the pedagogical mission. [Update: Even the affirmative action debate, which is a policy choice effectuated through admissions, isn’t intended to shape the conduct of pre-law students.] Perhaps its time to rethink that model.

3

Turn Off Your Cellphone or Go To Jail?

cellphone.jpgIs this legal?

An Indiana state court judge held three spectators in contempt (and restrained them for “more than an hour”) after they allegedly refused to admit whose cellphone was ringing. Two spectators later admitted their malfeasance: one was fined $100, the other forced to serve 40 hours of community service. And a third spectator is to serve 40 hours for not telling the judge that he knew whose phone was ringing!

I hope there is more to the story than this. Because if there isn’t, this seems like a fairly tough, verging on punitive, remedy, especially for the spectator whose only contempt was not disclosing that he knew that another spectator’s phone had rung. Punitive contempt proceedings require more than summary justice.

This should also serve as a reminder to incoming first-year students. Turn your phones off. Professors, who may conceive of the classroom as a mini-courtroom, will certainly become annoyed if a phone rings during class. For what it is worth, my remedy is to call on the owner of a ringing phone, and continue to dialogue with them for the duration of class. My contracts class this fall lasts two hours. I imagine it won’t happen twice.

3

Does familiarity breed contempt?

I have been reading some interesting articles on the factors that contribute to a court’s or judge’s reversal rate. Because I live in, and litigate cases in, Washington, D.C., where the federal district and circuit court judges occupy the same building, I began to wonder whether there is any correlation between sharing a courthouse and the frequency with which the appellate court reverses the district court. Similarly, I would be interested to know whether workplace proximity affects the frequency with which the appellate court orders a district court judge to recuse him or herself from sitting on a case. The articles I have found do not address this question.

The federal courthouse in D.C. provides district and circuit court judges with lots of opportunity to interact in the elevators, cafeteria, parking lot, gym, and at various courthouse functions (for example, at the annual chili cook off organized by Judge Sentelle, or at the holiday caroling hosted by Judge Henderson). Would these sorts of frequent, casual social interactions change the way the appellate judges review their district court colleagues? I could see it cutting either way. On the one hand, the appellate judges might give a little more deference to that district court judge who seems friendly, sensible, smart, and always remembers to ask after the kids when they run into each other in the hallways. On the other hand, the water-cooler familiarity might lead appellate judges to view some of their lower court counterparts as less reliable and trustworthy than others. Although I doubt workplace proximity is a major factor in reversal rates, I would guess that it plays in a little at the margins.

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