Story on the front page of Tuesday’s New York Times about a website that outs criminals who’ve struck plea bargains and will inform on their former cronies and even outs undercover cops and agents. Called whosarat.com, the site uses public records that in the past have been available only at courthouses or cop shops but are now gathered in electronic data bases, making them easier to find and publish.
Good journalism? Horrible judgment? Harmful mischief? TMI? Is this an example of nonprofessional information gatherers and publishers doing something that traditional journalists would not do? Should the site be shut down — it no doubt helps some criminals avoid getting caught and endangers undercover cops — or is this an example of how a free flow of information protects citizens?
The people who run the rat-outing site say it helps defendants know who’s accusing them or informing on them. “Nobody likes a rat,” a spokesperson for the site said. You can make an argument that secret police and unknown accusers sounds like USSR/Arthur Koestler-type stuff.
People can spread information and misinformation for awful reasons, but if you shut them down, the same tool used to squelch their bad info and views can be used to squash your absolutely accurate info and brilliant views. That’s the Nazis marching in Skokie First Amendment case — you gotta defend the right of expression you abhore, or expression you love can be stopped by the same reasoning.
So, Loveland and many others worry about the internet giving currency and reach to amateur sites and sources that are biased and inaccurate. Joe, of course, is advocating critical thinking, not suppression. But there’s always an instinct to clamp down on information that could harm people — e.g. reporting about our military and political problems in Vietnam or Iraq will embolden the enemy, so let’s not harp on the negative.
John Tunheim, a federal judge in Minneapolis, is heading a committee considering how to protect informants, undercover agents and criminal cases without censoring outlets like whosarat.com. As is always the case when rights conflict, as in the rights of a free press colliding with the defendant’s right to a fair trial, this is going to be a balancing act for Tunheim and his colleagues.
Identifying “rats” seems a little crazy, but it’s a challenging example of what happens when anybody can grab a big internet megaphone that has a reach and impact once only available to established media.
What do you think? Here’s a link to the story:
— Bruce Benidt