The Mindless Right

No, this isn’t going to be an Ethics Scoreboard screed against Rush Limbaugh and Tom DeLay. The “mindless right” is the so-called “public right to know,” a right conveniently undefined in its scope by the people who benefit from it most–not the public, but those who seek to obliterate all shreds of privacy, not to mention security, for their own ends, usually profit. Thus we have the fiasco of the Tyco mistrial, millions wasted because two irresponsible newspapers decided that the public would rather “know” the identity of a cantankerous juror than have justice meted out to corporate looters. Lately the right to know has been invoked by advocates of posting divorce records on the internet…making them so public that the intimate details of failed couples’ domestic life can be found by enterprising web surfers with a taste for the sensational.

When baseball great Johnny Bench filed for divorce in Ohio’s Hamilton County, thousands upon thousands logged on to the internet, where the county posts its domestic case papers. “They were looking for dirt,” said the County clerk, who took the papers off line. Rumors about the Hall of Fame catcher’s sexual preferences have circulated in Cincinnati for decades. People wanted a scoop on which way Johnny was swinging. Did the public have a “right to know”?

Here’s the argument of the RTK crowd, courtesy of Cleveland Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton: “Our country has a long tradition of openness in its court system. Efforts to close it erode confidence in a system that has been open since the founding of the Republic.” But the court system is still open: anyone who wants to sit in on a proceeding is welcome to do so, with a few exceptions. Moreover, the open court rationale was never designed to allow widespread dissemination of the most intimate details of an individual’s married life. The practice of making court records available on-line fails every ethical test when applied to domestic proceedings:

· Would you want your own life displayed under such circumstances? Of course not.

· Do people’s personal lives exist to be exploited by voyeurs, gossip-mongers and celebrity-hunting jackals, all willing to violate the absolutist ideal that a human being should never be a means to an end? No.

· Is there a reasonably plausible long term good that comes out of making divorce records to anyone with a finger and a phone jack? Quite the contrary. The ease with which divorce proceedings can be access encourages abuse of process, fraudulent accusations, character assassination and extortion-by-publicity.

There are limits to the public’s right to know, whatever it is, dictated by common decency, consideration and the recognition that an emotionally painful and traumatic experience like divorce should be kept as private as possible. The public does not have a right to know details that only satisfy its basest motives.

Does one have a right to be unethical? It’s an interesting question; the answer isn’t clear. But remember the names of those who argue for that right. And watch them closely.

Related Commentary: The Mindless Right, Part 2

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