Recently the New York Times carried a front page story about an eighth grade girl who foolishly took a nude picture of herself with her cell phone and sent it to a fickle boy – sexting. The couple broke up but her picture circulated among her schools mates with a text message “Ho Alert” added by a frenemy. In less than 24 hours, “hundreds, possibly thousands, of students had received her photo and forwarded it. In short order, students would be handcuffed and humiliated, parents mortified and lessons learned at a harsh cost.” The three students who set off the “viral outbreak” were charged with disseminating child pornography, a Class C felony.
The story struck a nerve, not only with the affected community, but with the Times’ readers as well. Stories about the misuse and dangers of technology provide us with opportunities to educate our students, and us. In a Washington State sexting incident, for example, the teen charged had to prepared a public service statement warning other teens about sexting to avoid harsher criminal penalties. But the teen’s nude photo is still floating around. Information has permanence on the internet.
Few of us appreciate how readily obtainable our personal information is on the internet. Just google your name and see what you learn about yourself. One of my students did and found, along with the usual links to law school and other websites like Facebook, a statement he made while running for an office in the Christian Legal Society posted on a website unknown to him. Without paying he found his name, home town and state, and a list of his immediate family members. Googling his phone number the first link that popped up was a map that located where he lived. The next link was to spokeo.com “a people search engine that organizes vast quantities of white-pages listings, social information, and other people-related data from a large variety of public sources.” According to Spokeo, its “mission is to help people find and connect with others, more easily than ever.” This site provided, without charge, the initials of all his family members, his approximate age and that of his parents and sister. It revealed the family’s home address, approximate home value and length of residence. Then my student saw a Google picture of his house and himself walking to his car with his backpack, presumably leaving to go to school. He was stunned.
Much of this information reaches the internet through social networking catching us, and our students, off guard. Some of us have Facebook accounts and followers on twitter, while others, concerned about privacy, think we can avoid internet scrutiny altogether, but alas we cannot. While Facebook is more of a “socializing” network, LinkedIn calls itself a “professional network” designed to promote professional contacts. It too has a “friend” feature and I have received email requests from students and law faculty I vaguely know to join their LindedIn network. I’ve declined. Just how “social” should we be in our professional capacity as law professors, students and lawyers? This question plagues all of us in the legal arena, even judges.
In 2009 the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee of the Florida Supreme Court, in addressing several issues about a judge’s use of a social networking site, wrote that these sites generally serve two purposes. First and foremost they are places “to post pictures, comments, and other material that visitors to the site can view.” But increasingly networking sites are places “to identify a member’s ‘friends’….[,] a person who requests to be identified as the member’s ‘friend’”. The Committee concluded that “a judge may [not] add lawyers who may appear before the judge as ‘friends’ on a social networking site, [or] permit such lawyers to add the judge as their ‘friend.’”
Should we develop similar networking standards for professors and their students? I plan to explore this question in my torts class this fall. So I am constructing a series of problems that involve social media to keep them engaged in thinking about tort law. This also is an opportunity to get them thinking about how their use of social media may raise ethical and professional issues starting as early as law school. Wish me luck.