In San Diego this week, a judge denied the request of a Marine Corps Sergeant to stay his hearing before a military panel considering his Other Than Honorable discharge as a result of the Armed Forces Tea Party page he created on Facebook and associated statements made against President Obama that were considered to be prejudicial to good order and discipline.
Meanwhile, the newly appointed head of the DNC’s Jewish Outreach program is under fire after photos from her Facebook page surfaced in which she and her friends (who are Jewish) made jokes about being the “Jew Cash Money Team” which might be found offensive to other Jewish Americans.
Now, there are certainly some uncontroversial common sense lessons to be drawn from each of these stories: the Internet is a largely public forum with a infinite memory; whenever acting in public, we should demonstrate good taste and discretion. And so on.
But I think there are also interesting wrinkles in these stories which merit a bit of attention (for example, Reps. Darrell Issa and Duncan Hunter agreeing with the ACLU in a petition against the US Marine Corps)
With regard to the DNC story, the photos are rather childish and stupid, but also mostly harmless and self-deprecating. Is it impossible, in the internet age, to have a sense of humor without inciting a scandal?
And with regard to the former story about the Marine Sergeant—the one which is far more interesting in my opinion—is the Sergeant acting on his own time and in his capacity as a private citizen expressing his opinion in public (the Internet Age equivalent of attending a political rally in his off time out of uniform), or, because this was done on a public server in his own name, is this a public political action that violates his duty to remain, in his professional capacity, politically neutral (the equivalent of showing up to work wearing a “GOP” button on his uniform)--especially given his statement that he would not follow orders from this commander and chief (which, given the reporting on the subject, appear to have been ill-considered statements made in haste and anger more than a serious threat to defy his superiors)?
Wherever you come down on both of these cases, I think one thing can be said for certain: the wall between public and private is being torn down around us both by the forces of technology and by the choices many individuals are making of their own free will.
Paradoxically, the age in which speech has more avenues to be expressed, distributed and heard than ever before in human history is fast becoming one in which engaging in some kinds of speech is more hazardous than ever to one's career and therefore that certain kinds of speech are stifled. It gives one pause to wonder whether our much vaunted democratic freedom of expression does not come with its own peculiar form of persecution.
To say the least, the slow collapse of the public/private distinction has implications for both of these spheres that ought to worry us. And, inter alia, is good reason for some of us to write in pseudonyms.
[Photo credit to KSWB Fox 5 San Diego]