In the age of Facebook, a casually told tale can live forever. What are the implications of speaking ill of the living?
My sister Marie said the belligerent drunk challenging the psychic was eventually escorted out of the theater. Marie and my other sister Ann were sitting in the orchestra section. The psychic had picked up on some vibe, or energy, I’m actually not sure what it would be, but as she walked around the theater she announced that that there was someone in attendance whose father had died of liver cancer, and who also apparently had not been the kindest man. Suddenly, Marie said, up jumped the drunk.
All heads turned and all eyes in the theater were now looking at a paunchy, middle aged woman who’d had way too much to drink. She was swaying as she stood between her seat and the one in front of her while the psychic explained that once people go over to the other side they learn things, sometimes they feel sorry and and in the case of people who’ve done bad things to others in this life, actually also experience the feelings they made others feel, pain, shame, guilt, depression, sort of a karmic pay back. According to the drunk, it was going to take her deceased father ages to work off the damage he’d done to her, wherever he was now in the universe. Obviously the psychic had limited time in the crowded theater to help the woman see the light, to understand, and maybe move on.
As Marie was explaining all this to me I was not the only one who was skeptical. Thinking perhaps that she’d revealed some truths and imparted some comfort to the drunk woman, Marie said the psychic started to walk back up the aisle away from the drunk who stood swaying tenuously upright in place until the drunk shouted out, “This is bullshit!”
The psychic whirled around and according to Marie, marched back up the aisle. “What did you say?” The psychic shouted back at the drunk, leaning into the row getting in her face. Suddenly this sounded like the Jerry Springer show set up. The psychic did her best to put the drunk woman in her place, get her to settle down in silence but the drunkard remained defiant and wasn’t having it. Probably realizing that this was not what people came to see, the psychic made the call: “I think we need security,” she said to the woman and with that two big men in suits and ear pieces made their way down the aisle to help “escort” the disruptive woman out.
Mind you this was a very big theater and the woman had been taking up quite some time. People paid good money to attend, nearly a hundred dollars a ticket and $28 dollars just to park. They probably wanted more than this for their money. Nevertheless, the whole thing was taking on a comedy like absurdity. The drunk woman being walked out by the two men, their arms under her arm pits, managed to break free and Marie said she spun around on her heels, angrily flipping off everyone in the theater as if they were somehow to blame for her predicament. Security managed to subdue the woman quickly and despite a minor scuffle in the back of the theater that part of the show was over.
Despite what I found to be the absurd humor in this story and the truth of the events as Marie told me, it is not what really happened. I was not there. I know only a recollection of my sister and in retelling what I was told I have left out some details that might identify the place and time, as well as the people involved. In retelling the story, I am not aiming to publicize, shame or embarrass anyone. I’m not even trying to tell the truth, nor am I lying. I’m simply telling a story and in the time worn phrase, I have changed the names, to protect the innocent. So when I told my son of his aunts’ adventure as we stood in the kitchen, him laughing, the next day, the name of the woman, the place, the psychic, none of that mattered. I was just filling him in on what his aunts had been up to.
With smartphones and millions of people’s access to the world through the ever growing number portals of social media, the mundane and minorly embarrassing moments of our public lives which twenty years ago would have passed into obscurity once we forgot about them, as well as more intimate details of our private lives are potential “content” for public consumption forever. Now that we live in a world where nothing can ever be forgotten, an industry is springing up to help us manage our online reputation. To say that we have to be careful about what we post online and how we behave in public as well as private is clearly an understatement. The potential impact of what one person says about something or someone, when done online seems to be greater now than ever before in history. Without understanding the implications of that awesome power, without enough good sense and self restraint, especially if we’re motivated by a desire for recognition, or even worse, fame or glory, we all stand a chance of suffering some harm—to our lives, our families, our reputations. And in the end, our reputations are all we’ve got. What we say and how we say it are best preceded by considering whether we should say it at all, given the potential impact.
All of this has to be considered in this country at least in the context of our right to free speech and our right to privacy which seem to be clashing more and more. Until this year, at least in California the person interviewing you for a job could have asked you to tell him or her not only your biggest weakness, but also your Facebook username and password. Seeing the danger of this intrusion into our privacy, California lawmakers enacted legislation which prevents employers and schools from requiring applicants to disclose their social media usernames and passwords. Oddly enough it seems our advances in technology have given us the ability to say more to more people than ever before and yet at the same time we need to seriously consider saying a whole lot less. Just because you can say or do something, doesn’t mean you should and the threat of a lawsuit against you for defamation, invasion of privacy or portraying someone in a false light, shouldn’t be the only reason you don’t say something.
We should consider what we say not because we might get sued, but rather because we value and respect our and others’ right to privacy. When we say things about ourselves or other people, when we post pictures of ourselves or others online, we are deciding to give up an important right to privacy.
Do you understand what it means to testify under penalty of perjury? Is a question I’ve asked many times as an attorney. It comes right after the court reporter instructs a person about to testify at a deposition to raise his or her right hand. The court reporter then asks: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
The witness always says yes and then I proceed to advise the witness that they will have a chance to review their deposition testimony which will be transcribed into a booklet of sorts. They will then be able to make any additions, corrections, changes, or, deletions they think are needed, if any to ensure their testimony is accurate. However, if they change a substantive answer, an adamant “Yes” answer to a particular question, to “No,” after they review the testimony, I tell them that it might affect their credibility and be grounds for prosecuting them for perjury. My hunch is that despite the threat of perjury, people are always more concerned about being thought of as a liar by other people. Our concern about the opinions of others should not keep us from telling important truths but other people’s opinions of us and those we write about, as well as their feelings have important social value.
So go ahead, say what you want. Post what you want. Jump into the world wide stream of sights and sounds. It’s not likely that anyone is going to get a court order to stop you from saying something before you say it because at least in California: “Every person may freely speak, write and publish his or her sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of this right. A law may not restrain or abridge liberty of speech or press.” (Cal. Const., art. I, § 2, subd. (a)).
In the case of Varian Medical Systems, Inc. v. Delfino (2003) 113 Cal.App.4th 273 the court explained, that “deeply etched in our law” is the idea that “a free society prefers to punish the few who abuse rights of speech after they break the law than to throttle them and all others beforehand.”
We believe that everyone should have the right to speak their mind and so we don’t want to shut people down prematurely because “it is always difficult to know in advance what an individual will say, and the line between legitimate and illegitimate speech is often so finely drawn that the risks of freewheeling censorship are formidable.”
Now that we are all a source of raw material, our data, our stories, our information, our lives, our identities, everything we do or say online is potentially more than momentarily interesting, humorous or embarrassing.
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