Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 3/17/2018: Mockingbirds, Headlines, And Reasonable Doubt

Good Morning, Scout!

1 Assorted blog stuff. I’m going to have to fly to Boston next month for the hearing on my motion to dismiss the specious defamation suit against me by an Ethics Alarms  commenter to whom my responses were no more defamatory than what I have said to many of you when provoked…Every now and then some blog or social media participant with a huge following links to an old post here, and I am swamped with visits from a lot of individuals with no serious interest in ethics. They almost never comment, and if they do, the comments typically don’t meet my posting standards. Still, they swell the traffic stats, and I’ll take ’em. In 2017 I had none of these fluky hit avalanches, after a 2016 that had several. This time, the post suddenly drawing interest is a 2014 essay about a letter written to director Terry Gilliam in 2005. You just never know…Expect a lot of Comments of the Day this weekend: I am way behind, and I’m sorry. Tough week.

2. Keep hope alive! Yesterday’s New York Times front page headline perfectly embodied the fake news-by-innuendo tactic that has marked the mainstream media’s efforts to pander to the “resistance.” The Special Prosecutor’s fishing expedition just subpoenaed the business records of the Trump organization relating to its dealings in Russia. Says the Times headline: “Investigation nears President.” Ooooh! Scary!

Hype, and unprofessional. This is the “He’s getting closer! And closer!” narrative the anti-Trump journalists have been flogging for a year. Yeah, I guess any time an investigation involves someone’s business it is “near” the owner, but why would that obvious fact justify a headline?  The reality is that Trump’s organization had business dealings in Russia (legal and unremarkable), the fact that Mueller is looking does not prove or suggest that those dealings had any connection to the campaign, and Mueller could have asked for these records a year ago. There is nothing ominous about the request from the President’s perspective at all, unless, as this whole fiasco has presumed from the moment Democrats seized on Wikileaks and fake Facebook news as the designated excuses for Hillary’s inexcusable defeat, there really was “collusion.”

That an investigation has been launched does not imply, suggest, or indicate wrongdoing. The news media’s reporting continues to suggest otherwise because they want the President to be guilty of something heinous. Imagine that: there are Americans who want their elected President to be proven guilty of wrongdoing.

3. To kill a “To Kill A Mockingbird.”  Harper Lee’s estate filed a complaint last week in federal court in Alabama, arguing that a Broadway bound stage adaptation of “To Kill A Mockingbird” by “The West Wing” creator and “A Few Good Men” writer Aaron Sorkin violates a contract, between Harper Lee and the producers that stipulates that the characters and plot must remain faithful to the spirit of the book. (I wrote about the complexities surrounding Atticus Finch’s character in a 2015 post.)

The contract states that “the Play shall not derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the Novel nor alter its characters.”  The producer, Scott Rudin, told the New York Times that “I can’t and won’t present a play that feels like it was written in the year the book was written in terms of its racial politics: It wouldn’t be of interest. The world has changed since then.”

He loses the suit, then. How can the adaptation ” not derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the Novel nor alter its characters” and yet reset the cultural orientation of the book?

There is already a stage adaptation of “To Kill A Mockingbird” (By Christopher Sergel, a hack) that has been produced professionally and by schools and community theaters for decades. It is pretty much a carbon copy of the movie, screenplay by playwright Horton Foote, which is both better known than the book and more popular. Therein lies part of the problem for both the Lee estate and Sorkin. The Atticus Finch of the book is not quite the sterling, blemish-free hero portrayed so memorable by Gregory Peck, for the book’s Atticus tolerates Jim Crow attitudes in the 30’s era Southern town. “Based on Ms. Lee’s own father, a small-town Alabama lawyer who represented black defendants in a criminal trial, Atticus Finch is portrayed in the novel as a model of wisdom, integrity, and professionalism,” the suit says. That’s not quite true of the book, however, though it is an accurate description of the Peck Atticus. Surely the representatives of the estate have read the book, and are not conflating it with the film. Surely.

I wouldn’t bet on it. I also wouldn’t bet that the late Ms. Lee understood who the adapter was when she made this deal. Sorkin is a talented, arrogant, left-wing ideologue. Of course he would impose his political views on any adaptation. In an interview with New York Magazine about his adaptation, Sorkin described his script as a reinterpretation of Atticus’s moral evolution. “As far as Atticus and his virtue goes, this is a different take on ‘Mockingbird’ than Harper Lee’s or Horton Foote’s,” he said. “He becomes Atticus Finch by the end of the play.”

Again, that sounds to me like Sorkin is admitting to breaching the terms of the contract.

A lot of people were taking advantage of Harper Lee in her dotage. I could see a politicized judge dismissing the estate’s concerns on several grounds, but my verdict is this: a work’s creator has the right to dictate the terms of any adaptation, no matter what virtues the new version might have.  I do not believe that authors should do this, because it suppresses artistic creation, but the original work is still their property until it passes into the public domain. If the conditions of allowing Sorkin to adapt the book were that he had to remain constant to Lee’s vision and not his own, then Sorkin should not be allowed to defy those terms.

I also believe Sorkin always knew he would put his own imprint on the story. He’s that arrogant. For this reason alone the Lee estate should win its suit.

4. Black lives matter, and so does “innocent until proven guilty.There was another acquittal in a police shooting of a black teen this week, as usual, with a difficult fact pattern. In Zion, just outside of Chicago,  17-year-old Justus Howell reportedly got into a fight while trying to buy a gun. Officer Eric Hill arrived on the scene after gunfire was reported. Howell began running,  with Hill in pursuit. He eventually shot the 17-year-old twice in the back, killing him.

Hill testified that he could tell Howell was armed, and that he shot because he saw Howell reaching for his gun as he ran and preparing to shoot. The video of the chase doesn’t show this, and a witness contradicted the account. But Howell was, in fact, carrying a gun.


If you believe that Hill had justification for believing his life was in danger—armed suspect, shots fired, reaching for a weapon—then the acquittal is defensible.

If you believe that the police officers should have just given up the chase rather than killed the boy, the boys’ death should be a crime.

If you believe the officer was duty bound to apprehend the suspect—again, he had a gun, and he had responded to a report of gunfire—then maybe not.

What if the officer had no reason to believe that the boy had a gun before he shot? Then the fact that Howell was armed is just moral luck.

I think all of these taken together add up to reasonable doubt, and I challenge anyone to convince an African-American of that when a 17-year-old black kid has been shot in the back.


25 thoughts on “Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 3/17/2018: Mockingbirds, Headlines, And Reasonable Doubt

  1. Is it ethical that “To Kill A Mockingbird” isn’t public domain?

    Copyright was only 20 years when the law was created, matching the protection inventors had with patents. Copyright has continually lengthened in time, now vastly exceeding the lifetime of the creator of the work.

    The new extensions driven by Disney’s desire to never let Mickey Mouse go into the public domain. Disney pays large donations to every member of Congress, and it is most definitely not ethical.

    • No doubt about it, the endless extension of copyright is strangling creativity. The original 20th century law was 26 years plus a renewal of another 26 years. The book was written in 1960, so it would have, under the old law, have run out of protection in 2012, while Lee was still alive. I can see the fairness in a copyright lasting as long as the author is living, and even a bit after, so heirs have a property to inherit. But now it’s ridiculous.

      • I believe the 1909 statute gave two 28 year terms of renewed properly and her work qualified under the ‘76 changes for more term. I agree that a longer of a reasonable minimum and life plus a reasonable extra is fair. Now the number in the US is difficult to justify.

        IP laws generally are directed to promoting diversity of thought and accomplishment (in copyright these are works of expression and not the content of the thought alone). New expression gets a monopoly so that another person either pays to copy or comes up with their own. Hollywood hates to come up with its own truly original works. Hence all these remakes and blockbuster comic book movies and such. Ugh.

        Can’t Sorkin get his thought out without relying on a base like Mockingbird?

          • Both Patents and Copyright started in 1790 with a same term of 14 years. Copyright could be renewed. Later in mid-ish 19th Century (1830s) Copyright was extended to 28 years with a 14 year renewal term. It has crept from there, exponentially lengthening in later 20th C. Thanks to Sonny Bono.

            Patents has only gone to 20 years from filing after 17 years from grant. Patent term extension can add time to the 20 year term for certain prosecution delays by the patent office, tempered by applicant delay.

            • This was exactly along the bend I was going to take… My understanding is that “To Kill a Mockingbird”, being published in 1960, would have under the original copyright rules have had a term of 14 years and then would have gone into the public domain in 1974 unless Lee took steps to renew that copyright for another 14 years… Which she would only have been able to do once. quick math on that is that copyright would have absolutely expired in 1988. We’re 30 years past that, and instead of expiring, we can expect Lee’s estate to continue renewing the copyright for another 70 years.

              It’s a gross contortion of what the law was supposed to encourage.

  2. Seems like some facts are missing from the BLM entry. From a juror’s perspective…

    Was the store robbed of the gun, since the teen was trying to buy one in a store? Was the gun, presumably missing from the store, in the possession of the teen loaded? Was it the source of the shot(s) fired in the store? If so, the officer would have reason to believe the teen may be both willing and able to shoot.

    On the other hand, if no gun was missing from the store, did the store owner fire the shot in defense of his property? If he did, it would be slightly less likely the teen would have a gun and be considered to be a likely shooter. Was the gun in the teen’s possession from the store’s inventory? If not, this looks slightly worse for the officer.

    While I may be fond of my questions as a juror, does the cop have the kind of time to know or analyze any of this under the circumstances. Likely not.

    Race is an issue injected by politics not justice.

    The teen was up to no good, but may not have deserved to be shot and we’d all prefer not killed. (We don’t point loaded weapons at anything unless we intend to shoot it. That goes for all involved.)

    Reasonable doubt all over the place.

    • Wasn’t a store but a street deal. Howell tried to run off with the gun without paying and struggled with the 18 year old seller who got weapon charges of his own out of the incident. The gun discharged during the struggle and the seller let go off it when he heard the sirens. Howell then ran with it.

      • But he was such a gentle child, wouldn’t hurt a fly, probably going on to college, some day. If Obama had a son, it would look like Justus. And what kind of America are we really living in, if a black child can’t just run along home to his momma after stealing guns from a back alley vendor? Won’t SOMEBODY think of the children! We need to close those gun show loopholes, that’s real problem. Why, had it just been illegal for that boy to be selling guns out of his jacket, I’m sure that no one would have been there, and there’s be less black blood on the pavement, glory hallelujah.

  3. 4. I think the jury reached the right verdict, but this was a case that warranted indictment and trial. Under Tennessee v. Garner, a 1985 Supreme Court decision, deadly force isn’t usually justifiable against a fleeing suspect.

    Could the officer have known with 100 percent certainty that the suspect was armed before he fired? No, not until the suspect actually pulled out the gun and fired at the officer.

    But the officer had reasonable cause to believe the suspect was armed. There was the call saying there had been gunshots. He probably did see a motion that was consistent with the suspect drawing a gun. (If you want to see a good breakdown of how these “deadly force” cases arise, you need to read “The Ayoob Files” at American Handgunner. and you will learn how and why cops are often trained the way they are.

    Anyone with a modicum of common sense should want cops to pursue suspects after a call where shots are fired. Furthermore, anyone with two functioning neurons should understand that when a cop gets a call that shots were fired, he’s going to be on heightened alert.

    The suspect could have just surrendered and complied with the cop. He chose to run, then compounded the error by choosing to act in a manner to make the cop believe he was about to pull a gun.

    I fully expect Black Lives Matter will exploit this and peddle a false narrative, just as they did with Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

    If I didn’t know any better, I’d think they wanted more dead cops.

      • Do remember, the War on Poverty incentivized a majority of out of wedlock births / singe parent households. Harder to raise, teach, monitor kids in our societal rules when there’s only one parent around. (This is not unique to any one race.)

        Which brings me back to my comments on video game babysitting, violence and video games (maybe both cop and the kid in this example). Not much surrendering to the cops going on in those. Welcome to our ruined by good intentions crap society.

      • Comply citizen. Do what you’re told and nothing else, maybe you’ll live. Doesn’t matter how unfairly you’re treated, roll over and show your belly, you can always sue them and lose later.

        Does it hurt to shift gears so fast after all that second amendment stuff?

        • Wow, what an idiotic comment. Law enforcement and the rule of law requires respect for lawful exercise police authority. Armed citizenry is a failsafe against illegal abuse of government power. No connection whatsoever. You want more young, unarmed black kid killed, keep telling them to resist arrest.

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