Does Janay Rice Have a Right to Conceal Public Acts?

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The Revel Hotel in Atlantic City

I don’t follow the NFL, so I had no idea who Baltimore Ravens ex-player Ray Rice is until stories about him started appearing in my Facebook feed. Given that a lot of people watch ESPN, it’s now well known that Rice apparently (and allegedly) beat his now-wife (Janay Rice) unconscious in a hotel elevator.

This wouldn’t be news at all, of course, if a famous person were not involved, and it would be just another story of domestic abuse.  And obviously, it’s blatantly unlibertarian and un-laissez-faire to beat people unconscious who pose no threat, so there’s no need to weigh in on at that aspect of the case.

What makes this case interesting from a property-rights standpoint, however, is the fact that the media is now being accused of “re-victimizing” Janay Rice, as if the media were in some way obliged to not show information that has been confirmed as true by numerous sources. I must confess I’m a Walter Blockian on this and neither the media, nor anyone else, is violating Janay Rice’s person or property in any way by merely showing true events that happened in a public place.

The only property issue here is the matter of whether or not the person who leaked the recording to the media was authorized to do so. That is, the hotel that made the recording may not have authorized the recording’s release to the public. Or it may be have been leaked by the police officers who had access to the recording. In either case, the relevant property dispute does not involve Janay Rice at all, but those who made and had access to the recording. If any party has a right to claim any control over the use and airing of the video, it is only the Revel Hotel which made the recording and owns the building in which the recording was made.

If Janay Rice, on the other hand, has a problem with the public nature of her beating, there is exactly one person she can blame for that: Ray Rice. The public elevator and hotel in which Rice chose as the venue for his actions is no different from the electronics aisle at Wal-Mart, or the parking lot in front of Ikea. One does not “own” the witnessing of one’s actions that play out in public, and if people witnessed it in person, or later in a recording,or even recorded it themselves, the public nature of the acts remains the same, and voids any expectation of privacy.

Thus, it is simply wrong to claim that the media is “victimizing” anyone at all by simply showing information that would have been plain to see for anyone who could have been standing near the Rices when he struck her. Moreover, Janay Rice has no right to claim ownership over the opinions of other people. That is, she does not own her reputation, which, as Block has noted, consists of thoughts in other people’s heads. Thus, to claim that Janay Rice is a “victim” of the media because the video’s release has affected the thoughts in people’s heads has no basis in reality. The events in this case were already public the second they happened. The fact that the number of people who saw the events has increased is unimportant.

The purpose of the “victim” claim is to assert that she has some right to constrain the actions of the media and others who are doing things she doesn’t like. But of course, she has no such right, and the only person who has victimized her is the person who hit her. Indeed, the claim of media victimization in this case is dangerous because it is founded on the idea that public information should be removed from the public eye if a person involved doesn’t like it. The argument being made is that the video “does not inform, but only shocks.” This is mere bumper-sticker philosophy since obviously the video does inform, although it may also shock. The same is true of a video of US military personnel shooting innocents. It’s both informative and shocking, but of course, the US government and its apologists make the same claim as Janay Rice, saying that video of such misdeeds should be hidden from the public for the sake of the victims, or even for the sake of the perpetrators who “are just following orders.” One might also include in this category efforts by police to ban video recording of things they do in public.

If the media were purposely distorting the facts that would be another matter, but in the Rice case, it’s hard to even make the claim that general politeness dictates that the media not play the video. The media’s use of the video doesn’t even rise to the level of gossip since there’s nothing necessarily mean-spirited in the airing of the video and (in this case) the media is (apparently) not attempting to distort the facts by strategically editing the video or smearing anyone involved.  And if there were distortion of facts, the distortion itself would be the relevant issue, not the reporting of facts. The claim to a right to control a person’s (or in this case, the media’s) prerogative to report or repeat public events after the fact is dangerous indeed, and stands up to no serious consideration of the actual property rights involved.

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