Reminder: There is No Such Thing as Private E-Mail

Atrios gets tightly wound over the fact that The New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent named someone who had sent a nasty e-mail to a New York Times reporter. This is what Okrent said:

But before I turn over the podium, I do want you to know just how debased the level of discourse has become. When a reporter receives an e-mail message that says, “I hope your kid gets his head blown off in a Republican war,” a limit has been passed.

That’s what a coward named Steve Schwenk, from San Francisco, wrote to national political correspondent Adam Nagourney several days ago because Nagourney wrote something Schwenk considered (if such a person is capable of consideration) pro-Bush. Some women reporters regularly receive sexual insults and threats. As nasty as critics on the right can get (plenty nasty), the left seems to be winning the vileness derby this year. Maybe the bloggers who encourage their readers to send this sort of thing to The Times might want to ask them instead to say it in public. I don’t think they’d dare.

Atrios says:

The fact that the NYT’s public editor, the person who is supposed to represent the *readers*, has chosen to publish the name and a clipped quote from a reader who never intended his name or comments to be published, and made that desire clear multiple times, is disgusting. It doesn’t matter what the person wrote to the reporter. As I’ve said, I’ve been aware of the identities of people who have not only sent me obscene and insulting emails, but who have made an effort to disrupt the comments of this site, for a long time. I never went as far as publishing their *personal* name/address/phone number/email. Why? Because it’s an unfair fight.

In terms of personal handling of e-mail, I’m with Atrios: My personal policy has always been not to air the e-mail I get, unless it’s anonymous or unless I get permission. Most of the time my truly nasty e-mail isn’t worth responding to, anyway; anyone who’s gotten as much hate mail as I have over the years has high standards as to what deserves to be shared with others.

However, I have not even a thimbleful of sympathy for Mr. Schwenk. For one thing, as Mr. Okrent points out, anyone who e-mails a reporter expressing a wish that a specific reporter’s kid gets his or her head blown off has set up a sphincter kiosk on Asshole Avenue and is doing gangbuster business. Perhaps a little public shaming will do him some good, or least keep him from sending anymore e-mails wishing people’s children would die. No doubt Mr. Schwenk is embarrassed and is finding out what it’s like to be on the receiving end of asshole behavior at the moment, and maybe this possibility will give people pause before they send off an e-mail like Schwenk’s. It’s one of those “live by the sphincter, die by the sphincter” teachable moments.

For another thing — and I don’t believe we still have to make this point at this late date in the world — there is no such thing as private e-mail. Certainly not in the case of an e-mail to a reporter; assuming the e-mail was sent to Mr. Nagourney’s New York Times e-mail address, that e-mail is legally the property of the Times, not Mr. Nagourney, and it may do anything it wishes with that e-mail, including giving it over to the Public Editor to write about. Now, I think we can safely assume that as a general rule, the editors of the Times don’t spend a lot of time combing through their reporter’s e-mails looking for juicy bits to air. But legally speaking, they could, and that’s worth drilling into one’s head.

But we don’t need to involve the Times as an institution in all of this, since there’s simply the matter that once one hits the “send” button on the e-mail client, one loses all control of the e-mail one has sent. It’s the recipient who has the privilege of deciding what happens to the e-mail, whether the e-mail is kept private, aired for the public edification or amusement, or simply plonked unread. In this particular case, I suspect that Mr. Nagourney shared the e-mail with Mr. Okrent, Mr. Okrent asked if he could use it, and Mr. Nagourney gave his assent. And why shouldn’t have he? By writing to share his hope of the decapitating death of Mr. Nagourney’s progeny, Mr. Schwenk made it pretty clear he has absolutely no respect for Mr. Nagourney, nor has he made any effort toward common courtesy. By the Golden Rule (a fine metric for human behavior), Mr. Schwenk should expect no less.

As Atrios noted, it’s probably a fine guess that Mr. Schwenk didn’t expect that everyone would learn he thinks it’s just fine to wish death upon the children of people who write newspaper articles that are not to his liking. But I ask: So what? Once he sent that e-mail, it was no longer his choice to make, just as when I send someone e-mail, what happens to it from there is no longer under my control, either. When you send e-mail, you give up control of what happens to your words. If you don’t want to give up that control, don’t send the e-mail. Mr. Schwenk may have been ignorant of this little detail regarding e-mail — or blithely assumed (if Atrios is correct that he said the e-mail was not intended for public consumption) that his own desire to have his vile little e-mail be private obliged Mr. Nagourney to consent to the request. But I don’t see how that should restrict either Mr. Nagourney or Mr. Okrent. In any event, he’s not ignorant of this little detail now.

Live it, learn it, love it: You have no expectation of privacy in e-mail. None. Ever. Presume that you do have an expectation of privacy, and you are going to be sorely disappointed (and, as Mr. Schwenk has discovered, possibly humiliated).

(Would I want some of the e-mail I sent in the past aired for public consumption? Well, no; Hell, there are some I’ve written in the last month I’d prefer not to have seen in the open. However, I recognize that I have no control over those e-mails; as a result, I don’t think I’ve written an e-mail recently that I wouldn’t own up to if it were aired.)

Atrios trots out the public/private individual thing, i.e., that evidence of Mr. Schwenk’s jerkitude should have remained private because he’s not, say, a New York Times reporter. But this isn’t a libel thing, and unless there’s a section of Times v. Sullivan I’m not aware of, there’s no private v. public litmus test in revealing whether one has voluntarily been an ass to another person. After all, it’s not as if Mr. Nagourney had to investigate to discover if Mr. Schwenk hoped his child dead; Mr. Schwenk affirmatively offered up the hope himself, in writing, no less, with name appended. Atrios likewise suggests that it doesn’t matter what Mr. Schwenk wrote, but I find it difficult to imagine a scenario in which Mr. Schwenk had written something complimentary to Mr. Nagourney, and Mr. Okrent had published it and Schwenk’s name, and then Atrios (or anyone else) had worked himself into a rage about how mightily Mr. Schwenk’s personal privacy had been violated.

I’m a little strict on these things, but I believe that one of the trade offs of free speech is the responsibility for your words. Should Mr. Schwenk be held publicly accountable for his words, even if he didn’t expect he would be? Well, why shouldn’t he be? One assumes Mr. Schwenk is a grownup and understands he’s accountable for his actions. He wrote the e-mail, and he signed his name to it. Let him stand by his words or retract them. After all, what’s the point in saying anything to anyone anywhere if we’re not willing to either stand by those words, or admit we were wrong for saying them?

Because he’s been outed as a jerk in the New York Times, does Schwenk deserve to be harassed and abused by other jerks? No, I think being called a coward in the New York Times is enough for most people. As I said, I don’t doubt that Schwenk will be harassed and abused by jerks, and I do feel a measure of pity for him for that, since it’s no fun to be abused and harassed by jerks. On the bright side, now he and Mr. Nagourney will have something in common.

As an aside, I’d just like to note that Democrats (or other political affiliations) saying something is a “Republican War” is no less odious than when Republicans were saying of Clinton that he was not their president. As Americans, we all own the current war; our government called for it, our military fought it, our people are dying in it. The question is what we do about it.