I’d like to say “never,” except that when especially offensive private text messages become public, they aren’t private any more. As with e-mails, any time you send a text message that you know will embarrass you if it falls into malign hands or is seen by righteous eyes, you have authored the means of your potential destruction.
That’s not right, but that’s the way of the world.
Thus a Washburn University Phi Delta Theta fraternity member posted a photo of a man with a topless woman in bed as part of a fraternity text exchange following a chain of crude text messages between frat members. These were obtained by The Topeka Capital-Journal on a slow news day—Wow! Stop the presses! College guys are crude!-–and before you could say “thought control,” the national Phi Delta Theta organization suspended the Topeka campus chapter.
“We are very concerned by the messages reviewed thus far. Phi Delta Theta is a values-based organization and any behavior or statement contrary to those values is subject to significant action,” Phi Delta Theta spokesman Sean Wagner said in a statement. Naturally, the chapter president then grovelled an apology.
“On behalf of the Kansas Beta Chapter we would like to apologize for the offensive messages circulated,” President Jake Gregg told the Washburn Review, the student newspaper. “They in no way, shape, or form represent the values of Phi Delta Theta or the men of Kansas Beta as a whole.”
“He promised members would cooperate with university and fraternity officials in their investigation,” says The Journal.
Investigation? What’s being investigated? Frat guys sent jokey, tasteless, typically sophomoric comments to each other (read them here–they are simply not any different from what every guy who ever hung out with other heterosexual guys has heard a thousand times, except that it’s milder than most of that). OK, some jerk set out to embarrass them, a newspaper helped, the national organization was embarrassed and felt to had to disassociate itself from the foolishness, and the chapter’s president mea culpaed all over the place to try to keep his frat from being plowed under. But the only difference between the text messages and two guys swapping dirty jokes with each others in a dorm room is that somebody unethically made the comments public, causing the maximum amount of damage possible to all concerned.
That individual, whoever it is, is the ethics miscreant here, just like Twitter bullies and the spurned lovers who send their ex’s clumsy farewell e-mail around the world to humiliate him. Those text messages were private speech, and making them public out of context is unethical-–a Golden Rule breach, a free speech chill, and a cruel effort to push the nation to a state of Soviet-style paranoia, where citizens are afraid to express thoughts, make bad jokes, say outrageous things to friends and generally live because they fear their words being used to destroy them.
Once the stuff is out, it’s out. The individuals society should focus its disapproval upon hard, however, are not the frat boys being frat boys. but those who set out to harm them.