In today’s world of text-messaging, Twitter, Facebook and e-mail, intentionally throwing a rumor into a crowded room is only marginally better than falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowed theater. Thus Ethics Alarms regretfully has to pronounce Georgetown Law Center professor Peter Tague’s puckish stunt of last week irresponsible and unethical.
Demonstrating how unreliable it was to accept media accounts from un-named sources, Prof. Tague told his first year law class that he had learned from a “reliable source” that Chief Justice John Roberts was about to announce his retirement. Some nimble-fingered Twitter-user (or many) promptly sent the rumor into cyberspace, where it rapidly found its way onto scoop-hungry websites, especially those made giddy by the prospect of President Obama having the chance to replace one of the Supreme Court’s most conservative judges with a progressive one. By the time Tague announced to the class that his “scoop” was a fraud, just thirty minutes later, the fake story was multiplying like a virus.
And he should have known this would happen. He’s a professor, and students don’t expect their professors to lie to them. If he and the class had been on a desert island with no satellite access, maybe the experiment would have been worth the half-hour breach of trust. Teague had to know, or had an obligation to know, however, that a room full of texters and tweeters wasn’t secure, and that risking the spread of a juicy Washington D.C. rumor in Washington D.C. was just asking for trouble.
He got it. Once the Supreme Court publicity office beat back the rumor, it was Roberts’ turn to be playful. “I do have to announce something,” Roberts told University of Alabama law students on Tuesday. “Apparently the professor who said that has been so overwhelmed, he’s decided to leave teaching. I feel sorry about it, but what can you do.”
Was that true? No, heh, heh, the Chief Justice was just getting even.
Will this madness never end? Law professors, Chief Justices, journalists, CEO’s and elected officials are trusted by the public and need to be for them to do their jobs, which means it is unprofessional, dangerous, irresponsible and (forgive me) incredibly stupid for them to indulge themselves in pranks or punks that involve misinformation. There is too much bad information flying around now as it is; adding more to the mix just isn’t funny. It is, in fact, a breach of trust.
Point made, Professor. Hope you enjoyed it, Mr. Chief Justice.
Now cut it out.