Posted Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011, at 11:21 AM
Yesterday, Jezebel posted an
e-mail exchange among three Princeton '05 grads
, one of whom is now employed by the State Department as a Foreign Service officer in London. The e-mails are an account of their contest to sleep with as many women as possible, and read something like a discarded screenplay for
American Pie VIII, The Eurotrip Years
. The men describe their conquests in explicit detail, make unflattering and constant ethnic generalizations, and are top-to-bottom pretty darn execrable. There's even a line (probably meant as an
Always Sunny in Philadelphia
, but an ill-advised one joke) about how woman "waived her right of refusal" by eagerly getting on a boat at 2 a.m. Anna North, the author of the post, wasn't wrong to describe it as "frankly, disturbing." But was she right to publish the men's names?
When Jezebel published the so-called " Duke fuck list " this fall, they didn't name the woman who'd written the PowerPoint ranking of the sexual performance of various Duke men, complete with pictures. (Faces blacked out, but probably easily identifiable to anyone who knows them.) Fellow Gawker media site Deadspin DID publish the woman's name, so it's safe to say that it was an ethical choice on the part of Jezebel's editors, rather than a legal concern. It's hard not to see a double standard here: Yes, the Duke list was sort of funny, unlike this one, and didn't have the constant ethnic categorizations throughout. But both are swaggering sex diaries, shared with a small group of friends.
I asked Ben Sheffner , a sometime Slate contributor and attorney who's served as counsel for media properties, whether the men might have grounds to sue for invasion of privacy or defamation, given the damage done to their reputations permanently, the private nature of the e-mails, and the fact that they are unfamous jerks. (The Onion might title this "Area Man Is Asshole.") It's not black-and-white, but Gawker Media would probably be OK: They could make a case that the e-mails were already "broadly disclosed," even if, in this case, that meant just three people and it was just e-mails, not an elaborate PowerPoint presentation. (Whichever of the guys forwarded it on to the tipster, if that's what happened, could be sued by the others, though.) There's also a section of the Communications Decency Act that gives Web sites immunity when re-publishing material from others, which has been applied before in somewhat similar circumstances. (However, Jezebel identifies the men in the intro, which is content they wrote rather than reprinted, so that's also a little iffy.) Finally, there's the key question of whether it's newsworthy : Jezebel could argue that since the man is a govenment employee and "represents American interests abroad," it's a matter of public concern. And he alleged that he'd slept with a Singaporean diplomat, so that helps make the case that his personal affairs might be affecting his job.
Still, though, I really wonder why Jezebel felt publishing the names was worth it. There's no indication the State Department guy is in a position of power, at this point in his career, and his friends aren't U.S. employees. If it was page views Jezebel wanted, it could have gotten them just as well without using the names of the men, and not ruined careers in the process. Instead, this reads like a sort of overly vicious public shaming Jezebel would cry foul about if the men in question were women.