A Porsche. A girl. A tragic death.
For those who don’t know, Nikki Catsouras was a beautiful young girl who made a terrible error in judgment, which cost her dearly. Nikki was a rich kid (which is quite relevant) who stole her dad’s Porsche to go for a joy ride. With cocaine in her veins, and fine German engineering at her fingertips, she drove her dad’s $90,000 sports car way too fast and way too recklessly.
She flipped the car and smashed into a tollbooth. In an instant, a vehicle that cost as much as a decent house in Kentucky turned into a twisted ball of useless metal. More tragically, the impact tore Nikki Catsouras’ body apart. Someone at the scene took a series of photographs. The most graphic photo shows the girl’s head split open, the brain cavity empty as the impact squashed it like an over-ripe melon. I will not link to the photos of her, but if you are desperately curious it shouldn’t take too much research to find them. Before you run off to search, let me warn you: If you have a single shred of humanity in you, viewing the photos of this girl’s body will make you feel like you’ve been kicked in the stomach. Crying would not be an unpredictable reaction – not even from the most stoic bastard. You will, most likely, wish that you had never seen them.
The tabloid speaks to the daytime television addled masses
Newsweek reported on the story:
The accident was so gruesome the coroner wouldn’t allow her parents, Christos and Lesli Catsouras, to identify their daughter’s body. But because of two California Highway Patrol officers, a digital camera and e-mail users’ easy access to the “Forward” button, there are now nine photos of the accident scene, taken just moments after Nikki’s death, circulating virally on the Web. In one, her nearly decapitated head is drooping out the shattered window of her father’s Porsche. (source)
Somewhat predictably, the Newsweek piece then descends into tabloid-esque fear mongering and carries the torch for shrill anti-speech advocates. The author obviously spent her share of time talking to the fear-mongering and panic industry leaders, as she seems to be one of the last people on earth who considers the ironically-named “Reputation Defender” company to be a source of reliable information. The author takes only a few paragraphs before she cheekily labels those who posted the photos with a nifty little title, “cyber-aggressors.” The author does not deign to seek out anyone who might have a balanced opinion.
Silverman channels Jefferson, Voltaire, and Brennan
Although Newsweek did not seek out anyone with an opinion based in both law and ethics, preferring those who are pimping their books or their worthless “privacy defense” services, those voices are out there. Suffolk University Law Student, Justin Silverman provides a thought-provoking uncomfortable defense of those who publish the Nikki Catsouras photos — embracing the “hate the speech, but love free speech” view.
Silverman admits that his first reaction was “[s]traight from the gut,” and that he felt that the photos should be taken down. However, like all ethical thinkers, he reflected upon his emotions and meditated on his position. Silverman, giving us a view into his First Amendment bona fides, found himself defending expression despite despising the particular expression at hand.
I now realize my first reaction was the wrong one. Unlike most stories, the lines here are blurred and emotion can trick you into thinking you are advocating the right thing. The right thing, in this case, is not what it first seems. It is to defend that website’s right to show the photos, however disrespectfully it chooses to do so.
According to the Newsweek story, the Catsouras family considers itself out of legal options. The photos are public record after all, released by the police and made fair game to all whom seek to publish them. The dead can claim no privacy rights, and the photos are of only Nikki. These are the realities of firm legal principles that protect the public’s right to know and make it easier for information to be distributed. (source)
Of course, Silverman still despises those who published the photos. Despite his willingness to defend their publication as part of his general support for free expression, Silverman does not let us forget that where the law’s boundaries end, there is still plenty of ground covered by ethics. Silverman is palpably reluctant in his eloquent defense of the right to publish the photos. Nevertheless, while he judges the photographs to be without value, and lectures the reader on ethics, he stays true to his own. Silverman admits that despite his personal distaste for this particular expression, he understands why the right to publish these photos exists, and he vows that he will continue to defend that right.
It’s not a change in the law I advocate. It’s just a reminder that in some cases our rights come at a high cost to others. Though we are free to exercise our rights, we should do so with purpose, for a greater good.
And that being able to publish photos doesn’t mean that we should. (source)
The academic circle jerk naturally disagrees with Mr. Silverman and wants big brother to put us under his loving protective arm. Dan Solove comments at Concurring Opinions:
the government has a duty to avoid unwarranted disclosure of personal information unless there is a countervailing interest that outweighs the privacy interest. In the Catsouras case, the disclosure of the photos was clearly unwarranted. The police department punished the dispatchers for the disclosure, indicating that the disclosure was not condoned. These facts indicate to me a rather compelling case under existing law that the California Highway Patrol is liable for violating the Catsouras’s constitutional right to information privacy.
“Constitutional right to information privacy?” Hold on. Let me check my Constitution. I must have a different Constitution than Mr. Solove. Now worry not, I’m not one of those “if it isn’t explicitly in the Constitution, it isn’t there at all” types. I agree that there is some constitutional right to privacy. “The First Amendment has a penumbra where privacy is protected from governmental intrusion.” Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965). However, a constitutional right to information privacy? I can’t go that far.
Nevertheless, I do agree that there should be a right to some form of information privacy. You should be able to feel secure that when the government gathers private information about you, it won’t then go broadcasting it around without some proper purpose. However, this is not private information. This is incredibly public information. If you do something in public, whether it is peeing on the sidewalk, flashing your genitals, tripping over stick, or dying in a horribly gruesome manner — that makes it public. That means that you have no expectation of privacy in that information. Just ask every girl who shows her tits at Mardi Gras and then finds her photos on the internet and every guy who gets arrested on COPS wearing one shoe and a dirty wife-beater.
What drives the publication of these photos? What drives the outrage?
I agree with Mr. Silverman that just because we can disseminate these photos doesn’t mean that we should. One would hope that human decency would compel people to refrain from exercising their right to distribute gruesome, gory, death-scene photos. I considered linking to them to prove a point or two, but my conscience wouldn’t let me. I simply feel too much compassion for Nikki’s parents to be part of the pornification of her death.
Okay, so we have figured out that there was a legal right to publish these photos. We have also figured out that it was ethically objectionable to do so. This was someone’s daughter, and turning their death into mere voyeurism is disgusting. While I do not support the Catsouras family’s legal quest to bring the wrongdoers to justice (because I see no legal wrong in the publication), I can assure you that if I met the person who did publish them, I’d haul off and bust their teeth out and mail them to Nikki’s parents as trophies.
But, that leaves some questions about the human condition. Why have these photos, in particular, become such a target for voyeurism? And, this begs the corollary question: Why has the publication of these photos, in particular, inspired such outrage from the established mainstream media? Why such outrage from the legal academy that accomplished professors would place their very credibility on the chopping block and fall over each other to invent legal theories that even a law student knows are bunk — merely to support their emotional response?
I think the answer comes down to cultural class warfare.
Lets think about what is so different about these particular photos from other gory death photos. Are these the first photos to be splashed across the internet that show twisted and mangled corpses of someone’s loved ones? Someone loved this guy, and this guy too. Rotten.com is full of images of the dead and dismembered. There was no similar outrage when ice-packed Iraqi corpses were displayed for all the world to see. To this day, we can find photos of burned victims of Little Boy and Fat Man.
But this is different, isn’t it? But why?
This is different because it was a privileged, young, white, girl.
If that accident had been some poor black girl in a Chevy Lumina with duct tape on the fender and cellophane over the brake light, nobody would have given a shit. The photos might have made their way on to rotten.com, but nobody would have forwarded them, and nobody – especially not anyone who went to an Ivy League school – would have wasted the sweat on their fingertips by writing about it.Newsweek’s author and the academic circle jerk are offended because the Catsouras photos offend their notions of how the rabble should treat the privileged. You know exactly what I am talking about. That same privilege that made Natalee Holloway a TV news obsession because she was a privileged white girl on vacation in Aruba. Meanwhile, hundreds of black, hispanic, and just not-as-blonde, and most importantly — POOR — girls go missing in the United States every day. Greta Van Susteren could give a shit about them, but Fox News won’t ever let us forget that a rich blonde girl went missing in Aruba.
It is hardly surprising that privacy advocacy and privilege go hand in hand. The entire concept of a “right to privacy” grows from an 1890 Harvard Law Review article by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis. They were not motivated by fear of an over-reaching government. They were motivated by a threat to their own privilege. In 1890, class divisions were far more distinct than they are today. The poor literally starved to death. Disease ran through American slums like fear of the Swine Flu runs through the advertising addled of today. Meanwhile, the wealthy lived in their Back Bay and Beacon Hill mansions, summered in Newport, and were far removed from the unwashed proles that toiled for pennies a day so that the rich might keep their hands clean. Yet, when the rabble began to see how the “other half” lived in the gossip rags, the Brahmins were aghast. Did they not have a “right” to lord over the proles without the damn proles peeking in their windows? Warren and Brandeis thought so.
The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, and man, under the refining influence of culture, has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury.
Ah yes, the rhetorical device of claiming that mere words inflict more pain than bodily injury. Just once, I would love to hear someone say that and then slash their face with a razor blade to see if they really mean it, or if it is just academic circle jerking in action.
Brandeis and Warren trotted out rhetoric that sounds distinctly like the snooty whining of today’s Brahmins and over-educated do-nothings.
Nor is the harm wrought by such invasions confined to the suffering of those who may be made the subjects of journalistic or other enterprise. In this, as in other branches of commerce, the supply creates the demand. Each crop of unseemly gossip, thus harvested, becomes the seed of more, and, in direct proportion to its circulation, results in a lowering of social standards and of morality. Even gossip apparently harmless, when widely and persistently circulated, is potent for evil. It both belittles and perverts. It belittles by inverting the relative importance of things, thus dwarfing the thoughts and aspirations of a people. When personal gossip attains the dignity of print, and crowds the space available for matters of real interest to the community, what wonder that the ignorant and thoughtless mistake its relative importance. Easy of comprehension, appealing to that weak side of human nature which is never wholly cast down by the misfortunes and frailties of our neighbors, no one can be surprised that it usurps the place of interest in brains capable of other things. Triviality destroys at once robustness of thought and delicacy of feeling. No enthusiasm can flourish, no generous impulse can survive under its blighting influence.
Yes, if that looks familiar, you’ve been reading Cass Sunstein, Gail Dines, or Concurring Opinions. I don’t mock this, nor those authors, because I disagree with them. I actually agree 100% with the above paragraph. I fully believe that the idiots that slather across the landscape, driving at 45 miles per hour in the left hand lane, shopping at Wal-Mart, and very successfully passing their genes on to the next generation of Palin supporters and Octomoms are stupid and easily distracted and the world would be much better if they all read The Economist and Plutarch.
However, I’m different from the circle-jerk for two key reasons: 1) I can fully and publicly admit that I agree because I am a snob and I look down on 98% of mankind. 2) Despite the fact that I agree, I would not advocate for my views to be backed up by a change in the law. A citizen should be permitted to be an idiot if that is his choice. Where I part ways with Brandeis, Warren, and their intellectual descendants is when they call for the government to cure the ill. I say let the mouth-breathing NASCAR fans read their gossip magazines, watch their reality TV, and let them get off on watching the upper classes tear themselves apart. This, along with the opiate of religion, is what keeps them from rising up and cutting all of our throats. (By “our” I mean mine).
Lets face it, since the earliest of times, the lower classes have loved to watch their betters suffer. It provides a salve to the daily suffering that comes from being a low-life. If you live in some dump like Lakeland, Flori-duh, driving your crappy car to your crappy job and coming home to your crappy house and watch your crappy TV with your crappy stained t-shirt on while you look at your crappy ugly redneck wife and your stupid inbred redneck children, it must really suck. It must suck even more when you see that there are people like the Catsouras family: Dad worked hard, dad made lots of money, married a hot wife, and had three utterly beautiful daughters. Meanwhile, you’re eating pork rinds and beans in your fart shack of a dump, working at the plant, until it shuts down and your job gets shipped to Mexico. Then, you see the Catsouras family suffer — in large part due to their privilege. A rich kid’s drug (cocaine) plus a rich man’s car, in sunny Southern California, turns from the ingredients of a life that mocks your very existence into the components of a tragedy that lets you guffaw — that your kid won’t ever die like that, because you didn’t ever think too much of education or getting anywhere in life.
A big shiny Porsche and a beautiful young pilot with cocaine in her system turns from an object of envy into a parable for how the rich and their decadence will destroy them — or at least make those who drive that Chevy Lumina feel better about their condition.
Well, if that’s the case, damn it feels good to shit on the Catsourases, doesn’t it?
And when the rabble shit on the Brahmins, the Brahmins look out for each other and call for changes in the laws.
I’m sad that the Catsourases are collateral damage in this perpetual play. I got chest pains reading about their plight. I’ve been there. My best friend died in a rather spectacular manner, and the douchebag who did it is regularly profiled in magazines and TV spots — and he rubs my friend’s death in my face every time he does it. My wife has gone so far as to forbid me to enter the guy’s home state, lest my Sicilian heritage rear its head.
That said, I’m not prepared to turn my pain into the suppression of the dissemination of lawful material, nor do I want a new law named after my best friend. Shit happens. Sometimes, when shit happens, there is a camera, a witness, a compelling story, and then those of us who were just minding our own business have to suffer the feeling of an ice pick into our hearts every time the needle skips on the vinyl of life. Those with privilege want to use that ice pick to chip away at our constitutional rights – which only further entrenches their privilege. If we let them, by the time they are done, we will have a patchwork of laws created by extreme outlier incidents, pushed for by the overprivileged like me, the Catsourases, and the legal academy – ushered in by a wail of hysterical shrill cries from those who follow them over the cliff.
Then, the 99.99% of other incidents that happen in daily life would be governed by these outlier incidents – slowly turning our entire existence into one that mimics our time in the security line at the airport.
That is not a result I want to see.