Friday, August 8, 2014

Forgetting Oliver

I’m watching with great interest what’s going on in the European Union. The EU Court of Justice has ruled in favor of the Right to be Forgotten, a concept I discuss in my book, Issues in Internet Law: Society, Technology, and the Law. Europeans have a profound commitment to individual privacy, considering it a fundamental human right, whereas Americans value free speech as a core principle of a democratic society. When the two values conflict, the winner will depend upon the locale.

Europeans believe individual privacy is a matter of dignity. They believe personal information about one’s life is, to put it simply, no one else’s damn business. They think everyone should have the right to remove information about himself or herself from the Internet. That embarrassing drunken photo, your bankruptcy record, your divorce proceedings, your DUI record, your misdemeanor mugshot, the decade-old news report of your sexual abuse by a parent, or the details of your rape are likely to come up on the first page of search engine results when a neighbor, a date, or a potential employer searches for your name. Europeans have a quaint idea that an individual should be allowed to assert a Right to be Forgotten – to make search engines de-link from the offensive material upon request.

Americans take the position free speech should trump individual privacy. After all, this is a nation of reality television that loves to gossip about the titillating details of other people’s lives. America is a “tell-all” nation, while Europe is a “tell none” union.

I have to side with Europeans on this one.

When I was a boy, the president of the United States was the most admired and important man in the world. Especially in the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, like any other patriotic American boy, I wouldn't have hesitated to take a bullet for the president. Any president. Democrat or Republican; young, like JFK or old, like LBJ; it didn't matter. The president was the president, and we were taught to be patriotic: every morning, we stood beneath the American flag and a framed photograph of the president, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. We knew we might one day be called to give our lives in defense of our country, and stood ready to give our lives in defense of our president, however unlikely the latter might be.

Oliver Sipple was ready the day fate called upon him. He was in a crowd outside a San Francisco hotel, waiting to catch a glimpse of President Gerald R. Ford emerging, when he saw a woman aiming a .38 caliber pistol at the president. Oliver lunged at Sara Jane Moore as she squeezed the trigger, causing her to miss her target. Oliver became a national hero. He also became a public figure which, in American jurisprudence, effectively meant he no longer had a right to privacy. The press found out Oliver was gay. He begged them not to reveal that portion of his life to the public. Being outted in 1975 meant social ostracism, loss of family and friends, and potential job loss. Although it had nothing to do with the news story, it made for a salacious second day lead.

When his family found out, Oliver’s mother disowned him. Oliver sued the San Francisco Chronicle and the reporter for invasion of privacy. He lost. Oliver Sipple, the American hero who had saved a president’s life, just wanted his privacy and a bit of dignity. He wanted the right to be forgotten. Instead, his private life in San Francisco became public fodder for the news media and titillating gossip for the neighbors of his Midwestern family. Ultimately, Oliver committed suicide.

Europeans believe individual privacy is a matter of dignity. The Right to be Forgotten is a concept we should also adopt in America. I've even got a name for: The Oliver Sipple Act.

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