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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

MySpace and Vigilante Justice

In criminal law class, we often talk about one function of the criminal justice system being to restrain the outraged passions of a community offended by crime.  And generally, the greater the harm, the greater the outrage -- which is generally what seems to justify substantial differentiations in punishment based on the amount of harm done.

But does that rationale make sense in a more 'civilized' world. In the modern world, townspeople rarely gather with torches and surround the houses of acquitted criminals.   Perhaps this just means that the criminal justice system has done its work and restrained the vigilante tendencies of society.  And, as a corrollary, the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in punishing offenders may have deterred the would be vigilantes.  It could also be a function of the breakdown of traditional communities who feel a substantial enough stake in the harm to take violent action.

But the death of a Missouri girl --  that occurred as a result of the thoughtless and senseless acts of a neighbor who feigned to be the girl's online boyfriend and broke her heart -- seems to restore this once-thought defunct basis for punishment.  As local prosecutors refused to bring charges against the neighbor, whether or not they would be legally justified, outraged citizens have taken things into their own hands.  One website published the neighbor's address -- the neighbor has received death threats, a brick was hurled through her window, and internet posts have called for her house to be burned to the ground.

Perhaps society that would once responded violently and publicly when it felt the criminal justice was unresponsive, now responds passively.  The following quote was offered in an article posted on Wired.  "People don't mind doing (this kind of thing) as long as it doesn’t cost them anything, as long as there's very little risk of retribution," says Robert Kurzban, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of works on social exclusion and stigmatization. "But when people actually have to pay a cost to punish other people, they prefer not to do that." (http://www.wired.com/politics/onlinerights/news/2007/11/vigilante_justice)   

Populations have increased in this country, while communities have decline. The internet has created a new type of community -- one is which community activism is much easier.  And, as a result of new technology, the 'old' justification from criminal justice (restraining vigilantism), may have as much relevance now as it did 150 years ago.

Posted by Wes Oliver on December 4, 2007 at 09:20 AM | Permalink


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There is a huge fallacy in this and other posting about the case. You act as if publication of information on the internet *caused* the actions you deplore. But you have ZERO evidence of that. Obviously everyone in the neighborhood and probably everyone in the town knew the identities of thd two families. I have seen no evidence that publication that reached people who do not live there caused anything.

This is not to defend the actions, rather it is to call for careful use of facts when making claims about the internet and its effects in the real world. There may be far less to this story than bloggers claim.

Posted by: Fact Man | Dec 4, 2007 7:23:21 PM

Read Dan Solove's The Future of Reputation. This is just another example of an ongoing, worldwide phenomenon. Before shooting for magic bullet solutions, consider the full picture.

Posted by: Scott Greenfield | Dec 4, 2007 10:43:29 AM

I wonder if this phenomenon also might cause courts to rethink the First Amendment standard for incitement or threats. The paradigm of the modern standard is the leader of that vigilante group standing before the pitchfork-armed townsfolk and saying "let's get that guy." With that paradigm, none of what has happened here could be incitement--it lacks the immediacy and the face-to-face interaction. But if vigilantism is possible remotely, might incitement be, as well? Certainly not advocating this; just suggesting the argument is out there.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Dec 4, 2007 9:33:37 AM

Indeed: see my response to Dan's post below.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Dec 4, 2007 9:30:55 AM

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