Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Miseducation of Jystar

Jystar, a PhD student in information and computer sciences at the University of California, Irvine, writes:

I was at the gym this morning, and on the large and annoyingly loud HD TV that I usually try to ignore was a news story, I believe it was on ABC, and badly behaved kids in a restaurant. I know, urgent breaking news, right? apparently, the station had hired two child actors to be obnoxiously loud and annoying children in a restaurant, as well as hiring an actor to play the father who ignored them and talked on his cell phone the whole time. they showed clips from hidden cameras in the restaurant in which the kids were banging on the plates and silverware, singing loudly, chasing around, diving under tables, etc. I think the purpose was to see how far they could go before someone would do something. a number of people tried to talk to the father, who just acted confused. "what do you mean my kids are out of control?" others tried to stop the kids, who either ignored them or got more annoying. when the restaurant manager came out, the kids hid under a table. why this is news is beyond me, but there's something even more troubling here.

through what process did this station have to go to get this segment approved? clearly, there are specific legal processes through which one must go to show a recording of some random person on TV. did they do a "gotcha" thing where they came out and had everyone sign forms? even beyond the legal questions, these people's dinners were almost completely ruined. and for what? for our entertainment on the morning news? if I wanted to do a similar social-behavior experiment, I would have to get it approved by my university's Institutional Review Board (IRB).
Under the First Amendment, there are, in fact, no "specific legal processes through which one must go to show a recording of some random person on TV." It is true that under some circumstances television crews and other journalists can be found liable for various privacy torts, but for the most part they enjoy great leeway to report the news, and they are not subject to prior restraint.

The IRB regime rejects the free-speech approach of relying on tort law to deter bad behavior, and replaces it with the idea that all is forbidden unless it is specifically approved. In doing so, it has robbed Jystar, and countless others, of their understanding of what it means to live in a free society.

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