Tuesday, March 02, 2010

To Publish or Not To Publish a Killer's Manifesto?

Believe it or not, I can remember the very first website I ever visited. Way back in 1995, it was my first semester in college, and I was taking a Political Science class. My professor told us that we each needed to go to the library, ask for help "logging in to Netscape", and type in this address (he wrote it on the blackboard).

It was the Unabomber Manifesto.

Thus was my initiation into cyberspace.

The reason for the assignment was that the Unabomber was front-and-center in the news that week. The domestic terrorist had just threatened to kill X number of more people if the New York Times and Washington Post did not agree to publish his 35,000 word manifesto in their pages.

Ultimately, after consulting with the F.B.I, both papers agreed to publish the document in order to prevent the murder of innocent civilians. But it was a controversial decision. With yesterday's post about the suicide-murder of Joseph Stack still in my head, the central question is still relevant... What is the responsibility of publishers when it comes to disseminating the writings of lunatic murderers?

Here's the dilemma. When I, a mere lowly blogger, write a post about how Joseph Stack flew his plane into a building and then left behind a manifesto explaining his reasons for doing so, is it my responsibility to A) link to that manifesto so my readers can see it for themselves, or B) not link to the manifesto because it simply helps spread his ideas, adds to its prominence in search engine rankings, and even, as some argue, contributes to giving it so much attention that it actually encourages future similar actions?

Just like the Unabomber, Joseph Stack did indeed write a manifesto that he posted online the morning of his attack. The link for it can be found here: http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/us/20100218-stack-suicide-letter.pdf.

It's my opinion that by making the writings of crazy people accessible, they will be exposed for being exactly that... crazy people. This is the classic notion of a democratic society relying on a free "marketplace of ideas". Put everything out there, no-holds-barred, and the truth will emerge. Good ideas will be seen as good. Bad ideas will be seen as bad. Thoughtful as thoughtful. Lunacy as lunacy.

Also, to be clear, this is not an issue of free speech (as some amateur pundits might rant). Stack's manifesto is not being censored by the government. Private entities are deciding for themselves whether or not it is in their best interests to spread the link. In other words, Stack's "speech" was produced freely and unobstructed by government; but at the same time, private companies and website operators are not, in any way, required to publish it.

Deciding whether or not to link to a killer's manifesto is not an easy decision, nor is it one that responsible publishers will take lightly. In the end, I've included the link above because I have faith in my loyal Nerfherder readers' abilities to decide for themselves.

But the question persists nonetheless.



At 6:53 PM, Blogger Patrick C. Fitzpatrick said...

I say: print it. In the electronic world its going to get out anyway. Like TV, if you want to, you'll find it; if not you just look away or turn the dial.

At 10:04 AM, Blogger Rob Domanski said...

Well said, Fitz. Although, I also still give credence to the argument that we don't want to actually HELP spread their messages because there's a real danger that the attention will encourage others to take similar actions.


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