Legal Rights & Ethical Responsibilities

The relationship between laws and ethics is not always clear. Although we may have a legal right to do something, this does not necessarily mean it is ethically justified.

Discussion Questions

1. The video poses that ethics demands more than the law. Do you agree? Can you think of an example? How about a counter example?

2. Although the video is attempting to highlight the conflict that sometimes occurs between law and ethics, more often they overlap. Can you give specific examples? Do you think the law follows ethics or ethics follows the law?

3. Have you ever been in a situation to do something legally permissible but ethically questionable, or vice versa?

4. In the case of Snyder v. Phelps, the Supreme Court protected Westboro Baptist Church’s right to freedom of speech, while Snyder sought to protect his family’s right to privacy and to not be caused unnecessary pain and suffering. Regardless of your opinion of Westboro or Snyder, which of these values do you believe is more important to defend? Why?

5. Is free speech so important that it should be protected even when it’s used to intentionally cause others emotional harm?

6. Do you think there is a way to uphold the right to free speech without protecting the sort of hateful speech the Westboro Baptist Church has used while protesting?

7. The Grantland editors chose to uphold the journalistic values of truthful and comprehensive reporting, even in light of the suicide of Dr. V. Do you agree that truth in journalism should be pursued at all costs, regardless of outcome? Why or why not?

8. If you had been in Hannan’s shoes, how would you have framed the article on the putter invented by Dr. V.?

Case Studies

Approaching the Presidency: Roosevelt & Taft

Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States from 1901-1909, embodied what many scholars typically refer to as the ‘stewardship presidency.’ In the words of Roosevelt, it is the president’s “duty to do anything that the needs of the nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws.” Under Roosevelt’s expansionist view, anything the president does is considered acceptable unless it is expressly forbidden by the Constitution or laws passed by Congress. Roosevelt believed he served the people, not just the government. He took many actions as president that stretched the limits of the executive branch, including the creation of national parks without regard for states’ jurisdiction and fostering revolt in Colombia to establish the Panama Canal.

On the other hand, William Howard Taft, President of the United States from 1909-1913, embodied what many scholars refer to as a ‘strict constructionist’ model of the presidency. Under this approach, unless the Constitution or Congress explicitly grants a certain power, the president does not have the right to act. In Taft’s words, “the President can exercise no power which cannot be fairly and reasonably traced to some specific grant of power or justly implied and included within such express grant as proper and necessary to its exercise.”

While Roosevelt expanded federal power in many areas, Taft felt many of these actions were legal overreaches. For example, as a “trust-buster” Roosevelt differentiated between ‘good’ trusts and ‘bad’ trusts, using his expanded powers as president to make this distinction unilaterally. He made a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ with U.S. Steel and told them that the American government would not attack their corporation as a monopoly since he believed the company was working in the interests of the American people. Roosevelt did not, however, pass any legislation or make any binding orders to this effect. Taft took a more legalistic view and later, as president, directed his attorney general to file an anti-trust lawsuit against U.S. Steel. Roosevelt took Taft’s actions as a personal attack upon Roosevelt’s presidency and positions.

Although Taft continued many of Roosevelt’s policies, he was inclined to look at the facts of the situation and make a choice based on evidence. Roosevelt, on the other hand, was more inclined to do what he felt was “right.” Their disagreements, which hinged on the grey areas of the legal and the ethical, ultimately propelled the break within the Republican Party during the 1912 elections.

Discussion Questions

1. What differences do you see between Roosevelt’s and Taft’s views of their ethical responsibilities as president?

2. How did Roosevelt and Taft each negotiate the line between law and ethics?

3. Between Roosevelt and Taft, do you think one demonstrated overconfidence bias more than the other? Explain.

4. In the case of U.S. Steel, whose actions caused more harm: Roosevelt by making an informal agreement, or Taft by violating that agreement? Explain.

5. Whose approach to the U.S. presidency, Taft’s or Roosevelt’s, do you think is preferable in light of both legal and ethical considerations? Why?

6. Can you think of an example of another president or world leader whose approach to leadership is similar to either Roosevelt or Taft? How does this leader’s approach affect his/her political actions?


Snyder v. Phelps

Matthew Snyder was a Marine Lance Corporal from Maryland who died in Iraq on March 2, 2006 at the age of 20. The Westboro Baptist Church, led by Fred Phelps, announced in advance that they would picket his funeral. Westboro contends that American military deaths are a direct result of God’s vengeance for the tolerance of homosexuality in the United States. Church members protest military funerals because they believe enlisted soldiers “voluntarily [join] a fag-infested army to fight for a fag-run country.” They denounced Snyder’s parents, Albert Snyder and Julia Francis, for raising their son Catholic. They claimed Snyder and Francis taught their son to “be an idolater” and support the world’s “largest pedophile machine.” At Snyder’s funeral, Westboro members held up signs saying “Fag Troops,” “God hates the U.S.A.,” and many others of a similar nature.

Albert Snyder sued for defamation stemming from false statements made about his son’s upbringing. He also sued for “publicity given to private life” because his son’s funeral was a private, not public event. These counts were dismissed because the defamation fell under religious opinion and because an obituary was printed with details of their religion. Other counts, including intrusion upon seclusion, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy, were all allowed to continue.

Westboro Baptist Church maintained that they followed all local ordinances and were compliant with all police instructions. They were allowed to picket in an area designated by police about 1000 feet from the church. Albert Snyder claimed he saw the tops of signs, but only read their contents when he saw a news program on television afterwards. Evidence was presented that showed Albert Snyder suffered physical and emotional harm, including complications from diabetes and depression.

At the district court level, Albert Snyder was awarded a total of $5 million in damages, but the Fourth Circuit later reversed this ruling. It was then appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld the ruling of the Fourth Circuit: Westboro Baptist Church was within their free speech rights set forth in the First Amendment. The primary message of their signs dealt with their broad public message and not one specific individual, even if it was hurtful. The court ruling stated, “Because this Nation has chosen to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that public debate is not stifled, Westboro must be shielded from tort liability for its picketing in this case.”

Discussion Questions

1. How would you rule in this case if you were the deciding vote on the Supreme Court? Why? What issues would you find most important in making that decision?

2. Does the fact that the Westboro Baptist Church did everything legally correct make their position acceptable? Should they adhere to any ethical boundaries beyond legal compliance? Why or why not?

3. How would you explain to both the Westboro Baptist Church and Albert Snyder the Supreme Court’s ruling while respecting both of their positions?

4. Can you think of any alternative methods by which the Westboro Baptist Church could make the same point without causing harm to individuals such as Albert Snyder? Explain.

5. Do you believe it is ethically permissible for someone to say whatever he or she wants, even if it causes harm or trauma to another person? If so, on what grounds? If not, where would you draw the line to limit speech? Explain.


Dr. V's Magical Putter

On January 15, 2014, sports blog Grantland published the article “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” a longform piece by journalist Caleb Hannan. What began as an article about a unique new golf putter gradually became an article about the inventor of the putter, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt. In his investigation into Vanderbilt’s invention, Hannan discovered that Vanderbilt had lied about her academic background and work experience and had taken cash from an investor that she never returned.

Hannan also found out that Vanderbilt was a transgender woman and outed her as trans to an investor. Although Hannan had made an agreement with Vanderbilt to focus the story “on the science, not the scientist,” the putter became a backdrop to a story about what Hannan saw as a deceitful personal life and fraudulent professional career. Vanderbilt, who wished to maintain her privacy from the start, did not want the story published. A few months before Grantland published the article, Vanderbilt committed suicide.

The article sparked immediate controversy over the merits and ethics of its reporting, as well as its role in Vanderbilt’s suicide. Detractors criticized Hannan and Grantland for a lack of awareness and compassion regarding trans issues. Defenders of the article saw value in the story and believed it would be dangerous to not report all of the facts. In an editorial response published in Grantland, sports journalist Christina Kahrl wrote, “It was not Grantland’s job to out [Vanderbilt],” noting, “she was a member of a community…for whom suicide attempts outpace the national average almost 26 times over.” Josh Levin, executive editor at Slate, wrote, “The fact that Dr. V once lived under a different name is not irrelevant to Hannan’s story… But presenting Dr. V’s gender identity as one in a series of lies and elisions was a careless editorial decision. …Dr. V is a con artist and a trans woman. Hannan, though, conflates those two facts…” Journalist James Kirchick defended Hannan, writing, “What I saw was a careful and ingenious reporter ferret out a fraud with care. …[There’s] no evidence that Hannan was…seeking to “out” and humiliate a transgender woman… On the contrary, in his article, Hannan arrives at a conclusion sympathetic to Vanderbilt.” Trans advocate and medical doctor Dana Beyer said that the article reflected the tragedy of being in the closet as trans, but did not revel in it or have malicious intentions.

Several days after the publication of the article, Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons published a response to the article’s criticism. He wrote, “I didn’t know nearly enough about the transgender community—and neither does my staff… We just didn’t see the other side. We weren’t sophisticated enough. In the future, we will be sophisticated enough… we made mistakes, and we’re going to learn from them.” Reflecting on the article over a year later, Hannan spoke about the complexities of seeking truth in journalism, “At every point in the reporting I could justify myself going forward… ‘I’m doing my job.’ But part of the job was to assess whether it was worth it.”

Discussion Questions

1. While Hannan and Grantland were certainly legally permitted to publish this article, do you think it was ethically permissible to do so? Why or why not?

2. If you were in Hannan’s position when investigating Vanderbilt’s educational and personal background, what would you have done and why?

3. What biases and/or pressures do you think contributed to Hannan pursuing the story and outing Vanderbilt to an investor? How did he rationalize his actions? Explain.

4. If you were in Simmons’ position before publishing the article, what would you have done and why?

5. What biases and/or pressures do you think contributed to Simmons publishing the article? How did he rationalize this decision? Explain.

6. Do you think comprehensive reporting and truth in journalism can be balanced effectively with respecting individuals’ privacy? Why or why not? How can journalists, in Hannan’s words, assess whether pursuing a story is “worth it”?

7. Do you think journalists bear a special responsibility to people who may be at risk of harm or face oppression based on their identity? Or is that too great a burden? Explain.


Dr. V’s Magical Putter

The Dr. V Story: A Letter from the Editor

What Grantland Got Wrong

Digging Too Deep: Grantland’s exposé of a trans con artist privileged fact-finding over compassion

Pressuring Journalists Won’t Protect Transgender People

10 Questions Bill Simmons and ESPN Should Answer About ‘Dr. V’s Magical Putter’

‘Dr. V’ Writer Caleb Hannan Speaks for the First Time About What Went Wrong

The journalist and Dr. V

Friend blames timing of Gilbert inventor’s suicide on fear of impending article

Teaching Notes

This video introduces the relationship between laws and ethics. This relationship is not always clear. Although we may have a legal right to do something, this does not necessarily mean it is ethically justified.

To learn about laws and ethics in terms of intellectual property and artistic and creative works, watch Appropriation & Attribution.

To learn more about ethical responsibility, watch our series of videos Being Your Best Self. These videos explore various components important to making moral decisions and acting ethically. Part 1, Moral Awareness, explores the ability to detect and appreciate the ethical aspects of decisions on must make. Part 2, Moral Decision Making, explains how to produce a reasonable and defensible answer to an ethical question. Part 3, Moral Intent, examines the desire to act ethically and overcome rationalizations when facing a decision. Lastly, Part 4, Moral Action, describes the necessary steps to transform the intent to do the right thing into reality.

Consider the roles that values and value systems play in shaping the relationship between laws and ethics; watch the GVV video series to learn more about values and how we can voice them.

Two of the case studies on this page offer greater detail about the cases discussed in the video, and a third case study examines legal rights versus ethical responsibilities in terms of presidential duty. “Snyder v. Phelps” explores how freedom of speech was put on trial when the Westboro Baptist Church protested at the funeral of U.S. Marine Matthew Snyder. ““Dr. V’s Magical Putter”” examines debate over the ethics of journalist Caleb Hannan’s reporting when he outed the subject of his article, Dr. V, as a trans woman. “Approaching the Presidency: Roosevelt & Taft” looks at the legal and ethical dimensions of two extreme approaches to wielding presidential power. For a case study that examines legal rights and ethical responsibilities with regard to medical care and informed consent, read “Patient Autonomy & Informed Consent.”

Terms defined in our ethics glossary that are related to the video and case studies include: diffusion of responsibility, ethics, integrity, justice, morals, self-serving bias, subject of moral worth, and values.

For more information on concepts covered in this and other videos, as well as activities to help think through these concepts, see Deni Elliott’s workbook Ethical Challenges: Building an Ethics Toolkit, which may be downloaded for free as a PDF. This workbook explores what ethics is and what it means to be ethical, offering readers a variety of exercises to identify their own values and reason through ethical conflicts. Activities that encourage discussion of ethics in relation to other institutions such as law and religion may be found starting on page 20.

Additional Resources

Annas, George J. 2006. “Hunger Strikes at Guantanamo — Medical Ethics and Human Rights in a “Legal Black Hole”.” The New England Journal of Medicine 355: 1377-1382.

Elliott, Deni. 1985. “Distinguishing Ethics from Law.” SPLC Report 6 (2): 3-5.

Elliott, Deni. 2007. Ethics in the First Person: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Practical Ethics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing.

Halbert, Terry, and Elaine Ingulli. 2015. Law & Ethics in the Business Environment. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.

Higgins, Rosalyn. 2010. “Ethics and International Law.” Leiden Journal of International Law 23 (2): 277-289.

Lauritzen, Paul. 2013. The Ethics of Interrogation: Professional Responsibility in an Age of Terror. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.

Merryman, John Henry, Albert E. Elsen, and Stephen K. Urice. 2014. Law, Ethics, and the Visual Arts. Alphen aan den Rijn, The Netherlands: Kluwer Law International.

Monteiro, A. Reis. 2014. Ethics of Human Rights. New York: Springer International Publishing.

Salbu, Steven R. 1992. “Law Conformity, Ethics and Conflict: The Trouble with Law-Based Conceptions of Ethics.” Indiana Law Journal 68 (1): 101-131.

Twiss, Sumner B. 2011. “Global Ethics and Human Rights: A Reflection.” Journal of Religious Ethics 39 (2): 204-222.Young, James O., and Conrad G. Brunk (Editors). 2009. The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Transcript of Narration

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.”