I often feel like issues and discussions fly by too quickly on Ethics Alarms, as trivial matters like an old Star Wars fanatic’s vulgar window sign and the desperate efforts to frame a celebrity gymnast’s ill-timed choke blot out the ethical controversies that are most important to ponder and understand. Fortunately the commenters here often take steps to ameliorate that flaw, as veteran reader Dwayne N. Zechman does here. His Comment of the Day amplifies a post from a week ago that came in the middle of the earth-shattering question of Simone Biles’ “twisties” and only inspired 22 comments other than mine (my replies to comments don’t count). This, despite the fact that, to evoke Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) at the end of “All the President’s Men,” nothing’s riding on what a Federal Appeals Court ruled in the case at issue “except the First amendment to the Constitution…and maybe the future of the country.”
Here is Dwayne’s Comment of the Day on the post, “Not Cakes, But Advocacy: The Tenth Circuit Rules That Compelled Expression Is Constitutional.”
So . . . true story:
While I was finishing college, I helped a partner build the first Internet Service Provider in town.
One of the ways we tried to generate income aside from the subscription for access was to create web sites that we would host for area businesses as a form of advertising. Being the “technical” arm of the business, I was the one who created these sites.
This was 1995 when the Internet was first deregulated to not require a “government sponsor” to connect and use the Internet–a relic of the National Science Foundation’s NSFnet which had grown well beyond its educational mission. At the time, there were no pre-built packages and everything we did was custom-designed.
Since it was all custom-designed, I used my skills with HTML, the basic language of websites, to replicate the design of a client’s existing paper advertising as well as possible.
So one day we get a client. His “business” is essentially a multi-level-marketing arrangement that sells a number of edible products based on algae. To me, this was a scam, pure and simple. The claims for the health benefits of eating algae were overstated at best and probably downright false.
But this was a paying client, and so got to work designing the site.
Let me reiterate here: I was personally designing a website for a customer whose business violated my beliefs and sense of ethics.
I am not exaggerating when I say that as I did the work, I started feeling physically ill. I believed this whole thing to be a scam, designed to convince people to buy a product they didn’t need with promises the product couldn’t possible keep, and further to rope them into signing on as another salesman of the same.
It wasn’t even my own WORDS being committed to the digital screen. It was, as I said above, my best-effort attempt to replicate the design, color-scheme, and layout of the customer’s own pamphlets that had been provided.
I most definitely felt like I was being an active participant in this scam. I did NOT want to do it.
My Ethics Alarms (a term I would learn decades later from our esteemed host) were ringing so loudly that it was making me feel sick.
Let me again reiterate: I felt as if I personally was endorsing this scam by creating the site that would promote it.
So there is NO QUESTION in my mind that this is compelled speech and Compelled ENDORSEMENT of what is being advertised.
There is maybe an argument that can be made–and that I could accept–if the sites that the web design business in the case creates are done by pre-built templates where you just fill in some text and the rest is auto-generated in a cookie-cutter fashion. But the moment an expert (artistic and/or technical) gets involved in making the site, it’s 100% First Amendment in my book.
Epilogue: As I recall, after the initial three-month run of the website, the customer elected not to continue paying for our services, and I was elated to be able to shut the site down once and for all.