Do We Have the Right to Read Elizabeth May’s Private Correspondence?

“One of the problems with social networks is that it is getting harder and harder for others to complain about you behind your back.”—Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes (2010)

greenpartyelizabeth-001Elizabeth May, the leader of Canada’s Green Party, has gotten into a nasty spat with Ricochet over the indie news outlet’s publication of some of her private correspondence with other Green Party members. I’m torn about this issue because, on the one hand, I believe that private correspondence ought to remain private, and I think it was wrong to leak those private emails; but, at one and the same time, I think it’s wrong for the leader of a federal political party to blacklist a news outlet for talking about the political implications of said leaked emails. If we criticized Trump for blacklisting The Washington Post, should we not criticize May for blacklisting Ricochet?

Petty squabbles and internecine disputes of this stamp are as old as politics. Nothing new there. What is new is how public this shit has become. Technology is, in a sense, what’s made this problem possible. All of this Green Party dirty laundry would have been hidden from view in the political culture of 19th-century Canada. Everything Elizabeth May said about Alex Tyrell would have been said to other party members in person. It could have been overheard only by someone within earshot (hence the term “eavesdropping”).

When things went to the telephone in the 20th century things got a little trickier. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s overheard a telephone conversation you wish you hadn’t overheard. Even so, if you could find a safe place to chat (and your phones weren’t being tapped), a telephone bitch-fest was usually every bit as safe as the old-fashioned face-to-face variety. But alas, all of this has changed with the advent of texting and email. Ava Gardner was horrified to discover that her billionaire boyfriend Howard Hughes was reading transcripts of all of her conversations. It’s sobering to note that we all have access to those kinds of transcripts now. There’s a record of everything now. Everything. And that presents new problems—big problems—for all of us, not just Elizabeth May. Do we have a right to eavesdrop on the personal lives of public figures?

Edward Snowden maintains that we do not. That’s why he was very careful not to leak private information and personal stuff to WikiLeaks. Although he had access to pretty much everything, he leaked only that which he deemed to be of vital importance to the public. Unlike Gawker, The National Enquirer, and, to some extent, Julian Assange, Snowden doesn’t think public figures forfeit their right to privacy when they become public figures.

Remember back in 2014, when that douchebag hacked into Katniss Everdeen’s computer, stole a bunch of naked pics of Jennifer Lawrence, and posted them on the internet? I’ll never forget her response: because it was fucking brilliant. Lawrence put the onus, not on the hacker, but on us, the anonymous masses, the good citizens of Social Media Land. She said that we had no right to invade her privacy like that, that we had no right to look at her private things. I suspect that Elizabeth May feels similarly exposed and similarly outraged. But I wonder if she has a right to be.

Ricochet‘s Ethan Cox maintains that she does not. I spoke with him about the ethics of publishing May’s emails earlier on today. Much as it pains me to admit it—because I love Elizabeth May—I found Ethan’s explanation thoroughly convincing and altogether sound: “We reported on the content of emails we judged to be in the public interest. That’s exactly what Snowden’s partners at The Guardian and The Washington Post did. There was no ‘private information’ released. We even stripped the header to avoid disclosing the email addresses. We reported on internal party communications clearly in the public interest. That’s been done by every media outlet in the country, many times in most cases, and for good reason. What’s more, these emails didn’t even belong to her. They were sent over the Green Party’s email system and are therefore party property. She had no reasonable expectation that what she emailed to a dozen people on a party list would stay private.”

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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