Tales Of The Slippery Slope: Paroling Sirhan Sirhan

RFK assass

Newly elected Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón issued a directive that his office’s “default policy” would be not to attend parole hearings and to submit letters supporting the release of some inmates who had served their mandatory minimums. Now Sirhan B. Sirhan, the convicted assassin of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, will be a beneficiary of the policy as he faces a California parole board for the 16th time tomorrow. in a prison outside San Diego. Unlike the first 15 times, no prosecutor will oppose his release.

Sirhan is now 77. He escaped execution when California, being California, abolished the death penalty and his sentence was reduced to life with the possibility of parole. Instead of death, then, his punishment for murdering a possibly transformational U.S. political leader might be only 53 years behind bars. It could have been fewer: under the California law in effect when the assassin struck in 1968, a life sentence with parole would have made Sirhan eligible for release after only seven years. Now the parole board will evaluate him as an inmate who has had no disciplinary violations since 1972, and has expressed remorse, sort of: at one, “I have feelings of shame and inward guilt … I honestly feel the pain that [the Kennedys] may have gone through.” On the other hand, he has never expressly admitted his guilt and now claims not to remember shooting Bobby.

Funny, you’d think he would recall something like that.

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The Baby On The Album Cover: Dumb Lawsuit, Valid Ethics Point

Naked baby cover

Thirty years ago, Spencer Elden, age four months, was photographed by a family friend naked and floating in a pool at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center in Pasadena, California. The striking and cute photo was then sold by his parents to be the cover of “Nevermind,” the rock band Nirvana’s second album that shot the Seattle band to international fame. (Never could stand Nirvana myself.)

Through the years Elden pretty much exhausted the opportunities to exploit his accidental celebrity, recreating the wet, wild and adorable moment for the album’s 10th, 17th, 20th and 25th anniversaries (but not with his naughty bits exposed, of course) “It’s cool but weird to be part of something so important that I don’t even remember,” he said in an interview with The New York Post in 2016, in which he posed holding the album cover at 25. Eldon even reportedly has “Nevermind” tattooed on his chest.But this year he needs money, or has a change of heart, or met up with an unethical lawyer, or something. Now Elden is suing Nirvana for damages, claiming his parents never signed a release authorizing the use of his image on the album, and more provocatively, that his nude infant image constitutes child pornography.

“The images exposed Spencer’s intimate body part and lasciviously displayed Spencer’s genitals from the time he was an infant to the present day,” legal papers filed in California claim. Lasciviously? The album cover indeed showed Elden as a baby with his genitalia exposed. Maybe it also made tiny Spencer seem greedy, since the graphic artist added a digitally added dollar bill on a fishing line, leaving the impression that the tot was trying to grab the dollar.

Of course, he IS greedy now.

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Sounds Fun, But Is It Shakespeare?

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” in Central Park is a “Critic’s Pick” by the Times theater reviewer Jesse Green. We learn that William Shakespeare’s “comedy of clever women, frail men and harsh revenge” has been “shaped” into one of “love and forgiveness.” We are informed that a drummer from Zimbabwe leads the audience in a call and response chorus of vernacular African salutations: “Asé” (Nigeria), “Yebo” (South Africa) and “Wau-Wau” (Senegal) among them. We are informed that the adapter has cut the number of characters in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” nearly in half, and that the running time is more than a third shorter than the Bard’s 1597 comedy.

Yes, and the “adaptation” apparently eliminates much of Shakespeare’s wordplay, including politically incorrect words like “master” and “mistress,” which Green says have “buzzkill implications.” Gone too are “misogynist references.” Predictably the setting is no longer England, or Windsor, but Harlem: it is difficult to find a a production of any Shakespeare play today that has any connection to the original in time or space.

The director and adapter have also “made several adjustments to embrace queerness where the original used it merely for humor.” Of course.

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For Ethics Alarms, The Controversy Over The Unmarried Pregnant Art Teacher Is An Easy Call

pregnant teacher

I lost an ethics training client over the issue now raising its ethically-muddled head in New Jersey. Several years ago, during a day long seminar I taught for a teachers association, I stated that a teacher who taught grade school, middle school of high school students while pregnant and unmarried was harming her students, and that responsible school were ethically entitled to make pregnancy outside of marriage grounds for dismissal. Literally all of the attendees were outraged (even the two men in the group), though none could articulate a valid argument against what I said. (“The right to choose!” is not a valid argument in this context.)

I was right, they were wrong. The controversy now over a Catholic school art teacher who is demanding that she should have been able to keep her job despite being pregnant is much easier, or should be.

Victoria Crisitello was an art teacher at the New Jersey’s St. Theresa elementary school in Kenilworth. In the course of negotiating for a raise, she mentioned that she was having a baby. Weeks later, she was fired by the principal, a Roman Catholic nun, who explained that she was being terminated “because she was pregnant and unmarried.” “Sex out of wedlock violates a fundamental Catholic belief that the school in this instance felt it could not overlook,” lawyers for St. Theresa’s wrote in a petition to the state Supreme Court. Crisitello’s lawsuit was tossed out by two trial court judges, only to be restored each time when an appeals court sided with the ex-teacher. Now the state’s highest court, acting on an appeal by the school, has agreed review the case, which raises the continuing thorny question about the relationship between the government and religion.

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Law vs. Ethics #1: Harvard Screws Over Its Students, But It’s All Legal, So There

Harvard welsome

Two rueful thoughts before I begin:

  • One of my college graduating class’s big reunions is next year. Harvard always does an amazing job of throwing a party (having a bank account larger than the treasuries of some countries let you do that , I have many friends and room mates I yearn to see again, and I haven’t been back home to Boston in 17 years. But I’ll be damned if I’ll honor Harvard with my presence. It has been an ethics disgrace consistently for several years, and I am ashamed of my association with the institution, as well as my family’s association (my father and sister graduated from the college, and my mother worked there for over 20 years, culminating in her becoming an assistant dean.)
  • I could really enlighten NPR’s listeners about the difference between law and ethics in this case, if I hadn’t been blackballed for daring to explain how accusations of sexual harassment against public figures like Donald Trump were not necessarily fair even if they were sincere. Oh, well—NPR can bite me.

With that introduction, be it known that in the case of Barkhordar et al v. President and Fellows of Harvard College,  Harvard University won a dismissal today of a lawsuit by students over its decision not to partially refund tuition when it evicted students from dorms and moved classes online early in the Wuhan virus pandemic. Continue reading

Ethics Reflections And Questions On The Chauvin Verdict, Part I

I haven’t read much commentary on yesterday’s verdict yet. I’m assuming that I’ll have more observations later in the day.

1. Ultimately, it appears that the jury just decided that it wasn’t worth it to acquit Derek Chauvin even if there was reasonable doubt. That’s sad, but the calculation can be defended on utilitarian grounds, meaning that, ironically, the arguably unethical decision to discard the law, individual rights, a fair trial and the integrity of the justice system might have been an ethical decision because it will cause less harm in the long and short run. In other words, it can be defended as a decision in which ethics won and the law lost.

I’m not saying that I would defend it that way, but I acknowledge the argument as respectable.

2. It is important to remember that cases where verdicts were based on emotion, human nature, and sociopolitical dynamics rather than the evidence and strict adherence to the law have occurred periodically, and will continue to do so.

The Nuremberg Trials were travesties from a legal standpoint, and the verdicts “ethical” only in the sense that a formal, solemn statement that some conduct is so heinous that civilization has an obligation to reject it was deemed more important than such niceties as avoiding hypocrisy or respecting the law’s aversion to ex-post facto legal penalties. The trial of the alleged conspirators to murder Lincoln was as rigged as a trial can be. This isn’t an “it happens all the time” excuse for the Chauvin trial, but a reminder that the Chauvin case isn’t the cataclysmic scar on the justice system that many will claim it is.

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Remembering Arturo Di Modica, The Artistic Ethics Train Wreck

Talented and bold artist? Shameless self-promoter? Hypocrite? Unethical jerk? Arturo Di Modica, the Sicilian-born sculptor who died earlier this year was all of these. He was also a one-man ethics train wreck.

In mid-December of 1989, the artist illegally dropped his “Charging Bull,” a 3.5 ton bronze sculpture (that’s a similar model he had mounted in China above), in Lower Manhattan one night in 1989. He claimed it was a gift to his adopted country, the United States, urging courage and defiance after its 1988 financial collapse. Maybe. Or he just wanted to grandstand and get publicity. Either way, you cannot put a giant statue in a public place without permission, permits, owning the property involved, little things like that.

This was a planned crime. Di Modica spent weeks prowling the Wall Street area after midnight, noting when and where police officers walked by. He had about forty accomplices waiting at around 1 a.m. when he loaded his sculpture onto a flatbed truck and drove to Broad Street, next to the Stock Exchange. But it was nearing Christmas, and the Stock Exchange had put up a huge Christmas tree where he had planned to drop “Charging Bull.”

So he put it under the tree.

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Law Vs. Ethics: The Minnesota Supreme Court Rules That Even A Stupid Law Has To be Followed

Law Ass

And the Court is right! But this is a really stupid law. According to Minnesota law, “‘mentally incapacitated’ means that a person under the influence of alcohol, a narcotic, anesthetic or any other substance, administered to that person without the person’s agreement, lacks the judgment to give a reasoned consent to sexual contact or sexual penetration.”

Wait, what? Does that really mean that a woman who is incapable of thinking straight or fighting off an amorous creep intent upon getting some cheap sex is mentally incapacitated and incapable of consent if she has been made blotto by a date who kept telling her she was drinking non-alcoholic punch that was really laced with vodka, but if she drank the exact same amount knowing what was in the punch, she isn’t “mentally incapacitated” even if she can barely speak or move to defend herself?

It does indeed. The law is, some Brit memorably said (but not Charles Dickens), an ass.

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When Ethics Fails, The Law Steps In, And Often Makes An Ass Of Itself…

Greg-Abbott

There is no excuse for this:

Abbott tweet

Well, let me clarify that a bit. Anger, frustration, outrage at the open attack on democracy and a level playing field in the marketplace of ideas are all legitimate reasons for someone to default to “there ought to be a law!,” but there is no excuse for elected officials like Abbott and Texas legislators displaying such ignorance of the Bill of Rights.

Stipulated: what Big Tech and the social media platforms are doing right now, deliberately and brazenly attempting to slam their fists down on the scales of democracy to make it as difficult as possible to communicate opinions, news and other expression that our rising woke dictators find inconvenient, is a genuine threat to the nation’s values and existence. However, those same values will be weakened if laws mandating companies to be fair and ethical undermine the First Amendment. As the giddy AUC and my Trump Deranged Facebook friends immediately reply to any criticism of the growing censorship of conservatives and especially President Trump, a private company has a nearly absolute right to decide who has access to its free services. As the social justice crusaders don’t say, but prove every time they make this kneejerk observation, they are thrilled to see their fellow citizens muzzled this way, since it advances their own interests. Big Tech and the social media companies have the right, but it is not right for them to abuse it this way when they have so much control over public debate and information.

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Comment Of The Day: “Oppressing The Twitter Troll”

censorship cartoon

This is Glenn Logan’s Comment of the Day on the post, “Oppressing The Twitter Troll”:

I always like to look at the law, and at the charges, to see if they are particularized and actually allege a violation.It seems to me the particular law at issue is 18 U.S. Code § 241 – Conspiracy against rights. The relevant text would seem to be paragraph 1:

If two or more persons conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same; orIf two or more persons go in disguise on the highway, or on the premises of another, with intent to prevent or hinder his free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege so secured—

What the government is alleging here, apparently, is essentially a conspiracy to cyber-bully. Attempting to convince others to vote a certain way or not to vote at all is called “electioneering” and is not only legal in the United States, but protected speech under the First Amendment, as well as widely practiced by all political parties 24-7-365, legally and peacefully. The law criminalizing conspiracies to deprive persons of rights was passed during the civil rights era and was plainly directed at the Klu Klux Klan and similar organizations.

As we all know, those groups would intimidate voters of all races, but primarily black people and their sympathizers, by burning crosses, lynchings, threats, and other violent actions to suppress or affect voting against the groups’ interests. Most of their methods were illegal under state and federal law to begin with, but the law in this case provided an additional tool to attack those who plannedlawless actions against the rights of others as well as those who carried them out. It is a bit like the Civil RICO laws, which were primarily aimed at those who directed corrupt mob actions but almost never participated in overt criminal activity.

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