Ethics Dunces: Prof. Peter Tague and Chief Justice John Roberts

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.

4 thoughts on “Ethics Dunces: Prof. Peter Tague and Chief Justice John Roberts

  1. Jack,
    This is much the same problem I’ve had with a number of initiatives over the years to “discredit” Wikipedia (most notably by Stephen Colbert) by using it disseminate false information. Disinformation has a the bad habit of forming even in the best of circumstances, but encouraging its spread seems downright malicious. Moreover, proving to someone that you “can’t believe everything you hear” by telling them a lie only serves to make you part of the problem instead of the solution.

    As a side note, I was reminded of a criticism made against the infamous Milgram Experiments by finance professor Robert Shiller when he said:

    “[People] have learned that when experts tell them something is all right, it probably is, even if it does not seem so. (In fact, it is worth noting that in this case the experimenter was indeed correct: it was all right to continue giving the ‘shocks’ – even though most of the subjects did not suspect the reason.)”

    -Neil

  2. The degree to which responsible, intelligent people don’t get the tinder-box quality of information distribution today is what shocks me. Prominent people who are that far behind in their comprehension of today’s culture and technology are a menace. These things can trigger stock market crashes, lose billions of dollars, start panics, change the course of history. It’s just not fun and games.

    • That it is completely predictable? That nobody who deals with students should be surprised by it? The odds of one irresponsible blabber-mouth being among any group of 120 21-year-olds (those are big classes at GULC—I got my degree there) approaches certainty.

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