Written and Narrated by
Deni Elliott, Ph.D., M.A.
Department of Journalism & Media Studies
College of Arts and Sciences
The University of South Florida at St. Petersburg
“The fact that people or institutions have a right to do something doesn’t imply that they should do it. A legal right is not sufficient to make an act ethically justified.
Take, for example, the case of Snyder versus Phelps. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church protested the funeral of U.S. Marine Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq. Church members picketed the funeral, denouncing both the deceased and his father, Albert Snyder, for raising his child Catholic. Snyder sued the church for defamation, invasion of privacy, and emotional distress. Westboro Baptist claimed that they were invoking their right to free speech, and had followed all local ordinances for picketing. Now initially, Snyder was awarded millions in damages, but the Supreme Court eventually overturned the case and ruled in favor of Westboro Baptist on the grounds that free speech is protected under the First Amendment.
In the lone dissenting opinion, Supreme Court Justice Alito wrote: “In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims.” So when ethics and law conflict, what do we do?
Consider also the story published by ESPN-affiliated website, Grantland, written by Caleb Hannan. The story describes the invention of a new style of putter. The golf club was claimed to be extraordinarily accurate because it took advantage of what the inventor called “the physics of golf.” And many experts agreed that it struck the ball in a revolutionary way, helping golfers’ accuracy.
As Hannan investigated the story, he made what he considered to be a dramatic discovery: the inventor, Dr. V., was a transgender woman. Hannan also discovered that Dr. V. had made false claims about her education and work experience. He reasonably included this information in the story. Readers judge the credibility of a scientist based on academic degrees and previous successes. They had a right to know if this scientist’s claims about the physics behind the putter were true or not.
As a journalist, Hannan’s duty was to seek out the truth and provide a fair and comprehensive account of the story. From Hannan’s perspective, Dr. V’s undisclosed gender identity was intertwined with her fabricated academic and career history. In the end, the invention of the putter became a backdrop to his story, which Hannan framed around what he saw as Dr. V’s life of deception. On the other hand, Dr. V. had been adamant about maintaining her privacy from the start and did not want the story published. A few months before publication, Dr. V. committed suicide. Both the writer and the website had the legal right to publish what they did. Neither Hannan nor Grantland is legally responsible for Dr. V.’s decision to end her life over the publication. But having the legal right to do something is not the same as fulfilling one’s ethical responsibility as a professional. Grantland acknowledged the difficulty their editors faced in deciding whether or not to publish the article. And the website has apologized for not consulting with members of the trans community before the story was published.
Just because the law allows you to do something doesn’t mean it’s the ethical thing to do. The law sets out what people are free to do, regardless of the effect that those actions have on others. Ethics describes what people should do, taking their responsibilities and the predictable consequences of their actions into account. In most cases, it’s clear: ethics demands more than the law.”