Several days ago, popular Atheist blogger PZ Myers made some incendiary claims on his site Pharyngula. Myers asked, “What do you do when someone pulls the pin and hands you a grenade?” Probably the worst response is to throw the grenade into a large crowd. But that’s what Myers did by posting criminal allegations on his blog — specifically, he posted an anonymous allegation of rape made against a popular author and speaker. In spite of the fractured culture that’s emerged in the skeptic/Atheist blogosphere, I like Pharyngula and I usually enjoy Myers’ writing. This time, I think there’s a consensus that he made a mistake (I’ll avoid linking to other blogs since there’s a lot of shouting about who’s buddies with whom). From my perspective, PZ’s question about the grenade should be translated into a more practical wording:
How should an individual or association respond to private allegations of criminal conduct?
There’s a quick answer (and I’ll offer more detailed explanations below): In general, if you have knowledge of a crime, you should immediately speak to a law enforcement representative and/or consult with an attorney before taking any action or making any public disclosures. Now since PZ is a blogger — and therefore arguably classifiable as some form of journalist — there may be other appropriate steps.
Wikipedia’s page on Journalism ethics and standards provides only a brief introduction to the Harm Limitation principle, quoting from the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics:
- Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
- Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
- Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.
I think Myers was right to preserve his source’s anonymity, but fell flat on the latter two points. These points presume that criminal allegations will proceed toward filing of formal charges and subsequently a fair trial for the accused. Based on Myers’ comments, however, it seems that these allegations are not going to be prosecuted in the courts. There are fair reasons why the victim might want to avoid making formal charges:
- Making a formal complaint means her identity will eventually be disclosed to the public.
- The burden of proof rests on the accuser, and convictions are rarely achieved in sexual assault cases (RAINN claims it is around 5%).
- Public opinion is generally skeptical toward the victim, and public accusations may lead to years of harassment directed at the victim.
These are really fundamental problems for our justice system, and I wouldn’t want to understate the difficulties faced by any victim. By publicly disclosing rape allegations on his blog, Myers has done nothing to diminish these difficulties, and has done nothing to advance the cause of justice for sexual assault victims. It is true that our justice system is broken, but it is the only one we have. Alternative armchair justice does not work, especially when the method is no better than an appeal to mob justice.
Perhaps Myers would like the skeptic/Atheist organizations to take some in-house actions resulting from the allegations. I don’t think this likely to succeed. Skeptics should remember the failure of the Catholic church to internally adjudicate accusations of sexual abuse. There are numerous other instances in which isolated groups have attempted to privately self-administer justice in cases of rape, molestation, theft or other crimes. It seems to happen a lot in universities, such as a case earlier this year at North Carolina State University. In that case, the student had reported an assault publicly (but evidently not to the police). A student-led “honor court” allegedly stepped in and charged the victim with “disruptive or intimidating behavior.” I have seen similar events play out with half-baked efforts at other universities (including a school that I attended). Attempts at alternative justice almost always make things worse for the victim, and often they turn out to be illegal in themselves. We have only one justice system, and it is the only place that is supposed to know what to do with these situations. It may be badly screwing up, but no one else is supposed to know what to do. The answer is to find systemic solutions, not to search for piece-wise justice from the wisdom of crowds.
Lastly, I would like to ask how PZ expects his readers to respond to this new information (I’ll state once again that I’m a frequent reader). For this question, I’ll assume the allegation is true. Now what? As an academic professional, I’ve encountered this situation before. When a colleague is convicted of a crime, be it assault, rape or murder… I don’t actually need to do anything. I continue with my business as usual. When appropriate, I continue citing articles written by the criminal (unless they are discovered to be fraudulent), because their crime generally has no relationship to the correctness of their findings or the quality of their publications.
To sum up, I’m going to give PZ Myers the benefit of the doubt and assume that he did this with good intentions. It was a mistake nonetheless, and one that will have negative impacts on all involved.