Background: New York Times Joe Nocera is stirring up public outrage because some employees of a law firm involved in questionable foreclosure practices attended the firms 2010 Halloween party dressed as homeless people. Photos taken at the Steven J. Baum law firm’s Halloween party last year were passed along to Nocera by a former firm employee. In one that was posed on the Times site, two party-goers are dressed as homeless people, with one holding a sign that reads, “I lost my home and I was never served.” Nocera wrote that the costumes show an “appalling lack of compassion.”
Here are ten questions and answers regarding ethics issues raised by the incident.
1. Question: Do the costumes show “an appalling lack of compassion”? Answer: No. They are Halloween costumes, meaning that the wearers are pretending to be something or someone other than what they are. Maybe they were meant to show sympathy. Maybe they were meant as satire. Maybe they were easy costumes to put together at the last minute. If the individuals wore those costumes to a party thrown by people who had lost their homes, that would show an appalling lack of compassion.
2. Question: Is it fair to make ethical judgements about costumes worn to private parties? Answer: No, except in the most extreme cases. It makes no sense to have a standard requiring private costumes, speech or entertainment to be appropriate for wider exposure. Baum told the press that this year’s party, held last week, raised money for the American Red Cross, and employees were warned they could not wear costumes that “might be interpreted as offensive.” Well, good luck with that. Witch costumes show “an appalling lack of compassion” for the victims of the Salem witch trials. Ghosts show disrespect for the dead. Zombies might be taken the wrong way by the handicapped or mentally challenged. PETA members will say that dressing like Shamu celebrates slavery. Halloween costumes among friends and colleagues should be exempt from charges of offensiveness by anyone not invited to the party.
3. Question: Was the former employee who passed on the photos to Nocera wrong to do so? Answer: Of course he was. It was a cowardly, vindictive, gratuitously mean thing to do without any redeeming qualities whatsoever.
4. Question: Was Nocera wrong to print the story? Answer: Yes. Why is what two unidentified employees of a law firm wear to a party when they are off work news? They aren’t public figures. They don’t speak for the firm; we don’t even know it they were lawyers, spouses, or paralegals. But bashing the legal profession is always popular, so Nocera felt that fairness was irrelevant.
5. Question: Does this mean that the Steven J. Baum law firm did nothing wrong? Answer: No. When the firm was questioned about last year’s party, its response was to give the New York Times this statement: “It has been suggested that some employees dress in … attire that mocks or attempts to belittle the plight of those who have lost their homes. Nothing could be further from the truth.” It was lying, which is unethical and a lot more serious than tolerating some tasteless costumes at a party. Once the photos surfaced, the firm acknowledged the costumes and apologized, having shown the public that law firms and lawyers, despite their duty to tell the truth, are often perfectly willing to lie if they think they can get away with it.