Privacy Laws, Ethics And The Public Interest

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Privacy Laws, Ethics and the Public Interest

Privacy Laws, Ethics and the Public Interest


It is a truism for students of ethics that while the law may present a socially codified moral code, the law and ethics are not synonymous. Ethical acts are sometimes against the law, as in acts of civil disobedience. History provides many examples of those who argued that certain laws were unethical. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which established our freedom of speech, assembly, press and religion, is of particular interest for our discipline, for it is a founding principle of American political communication ethics. The Speech Communication Association's "Credo for Free and Responsible Communication in a Democratic Society" endorses free and responsible communication, both freedom of speech and communication ethics.

Tensions Between Privacy Laws , Ethics and the Public Interest

A critical element of a communication ethic based upon the U.S. First Amendment is protection of the minority viewpoint, the dissenter, or the protester. Protest movements often have challenged our understanding of both socially and constitutionally acceptable communication acts, and at the same time raised questions about the ethicality of these communication acts. In their challenge of the majority viewpoint, protest movements also challenge our understanding of what is socially acceptable and constitutionally protected speech. Questions are raised about whether the challenges to the majority have gone too far, even if they may be constitutionally protected. A recent challenge to the majority's notions of social acceptability and possible constitutional protection is the public "outing" of closeted homosexuals in the homosexual press and subsequent coverage in the mainstream press. The case of the public "outing" of Pete Williams, an Assistant Secretary of Defense, provides students with an opportunity for exploring some tension points between law and ethics, and specifically between the First Amendment and communication ethics. The "outing" of Pete Williams is a complex case, with multiple layers of issues. The goal in student analysis of complex cases is to practice crafting ethical responses to a complex ethical situation. A second goal for analyzing complex cases in the classroom is to develop our moral imaginations (Jaska and Pritchard, 12-13). A moral imagination relies upon discernment, discipline, and creativity. We apply these capacities when recognizing ethical issues, analyzing them, and reasoning ethically about them. In a complex case we use these skills when facing the case's moral dilemma or quandary. The complexity characteristic of dilemmas and quandaries and the confusion they foster can feel overwhelming, encouraging us to avert our eyes from the quandaries a complex case can pose. This, in fact, may be a sign that there are significant questions to be asked and explored. Encouraging students to apply their moral imaginations to complex ethical cases challenges them to remain sensitive to inconsistent constraints and principles, but not succumb to a moral paralysis of avoidance or inaction. Complex ethical cases give students an opportunity to explore moral courage in communication, of facing a morally complex situation, engaging in thoughtful reflection, and choosing ...
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