9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Alex Kozinski, California, Much Ado About Nothing, The Blogosphere, The Mainstream Media
What I mean by “the Kozinski mess” is the total inability of the media — including we, the media, bloggers — to get the basic facts right, and keep the reality in perspective. The real story here is how easily we let such a baseless smear travel – and our need is for a better developed immunity (in the sense of immunity from a virus) from this sort of garbage.
Here are the facts as I’ve been able to tell: For at least a month, a disgruntled litigant, angry at Judge Kozinski (and the Ninth Circuit) has been talking to the media to try to smear Kozinski. Kozinski had sent a link to a file (unrelated to the stuff being reported about) that was stored on a file server maintained by Kozinski’s son, Yale. From that link (and a mistake in how the server was configured), it was possible to determine the directory structure for the server. From that directory structure, it was possible to see likely interesting places to peer. The disgruntled sort did that, and shopped some of what he found to the news sources that are now spreading it.
Eugene Volokh, who clerked for Judge Kozinski, is even more indignant.
A lawyer (Cyrus Sanai) who has long had a grudge against Judge Kozinski finds out that the Kozinski family has a network server with various files on it. The controversial files on that server aren’t linked to from the Web, and aren’t indexed on search engines. They are generally meant only for family members and a few other people who get specific pointers to them.
But the lawyer figures out the private server’s internal directory structure, rummages around, finds some of the files, and downloads them. And some of the files contain what is basically â€” if what I saw at Patterico’s site is representative â€” visual sexual humor. There are some spoofs, for instance of the MasterCard commercials, some puns, some absurdities. Kozinski, or someone in his family, apparently got them sent to him, and decided to save them alongside a bunch of other stuff he found interesting or amusing.
Now the fruit of this disgruntled lawyer’s rummaging through someone else’s personal files somehow becomes a national news story. Why? Because Kozinski is presiding over an obscenity trial? All this stuff â€” the sort of sexual humor that gets circulated all the time â€” is not remotely in the same league as what the defendant is being criminally prosecuted for. Recall that the defendant is being prosecuted precisely because his sex-and-defecation movies are so far out even by modern standards of actual pornography. Sanai’s discoveries are similar to someone’s finding that a judge who’s presiding over a drunk driving trial has some screw-top bottles of rosÃ© wine in his cupboard at home, shamelessly displayed in a way that the whole world can see them, if the whole world stands on its tiptoes and peers through a back window. The news value of that would be what, exactly? (Yes, I know screw-tops are becoming legit, but pretend it’s ten years ago.)
OK, people are saying, it was careless of Kozinski not to make sure that the site (which was apparently managed by one of Kozinski’s grown sons) was properly secured. Sure, in retrospect, whenever something leads to this sort of media circus, by definition one would have been wise to take more care to prevent it. But surely even otherwise reasonable people might fail to plan for their enemies’ rummaging around through the files on a private family server.
It’s kind of like your parking your car on the street, locking it, but forgetting to close a back window â€” or like your throwing out something in the trash without shredding it and leaving the trash cans by the curb. Then someone who has a grudge against you comes by and starts using the open window to rummage around in the stuff you have piled up in the back seat, or starts rummaging through your trash. (Note that to my knowledge such rummaging probably isn’t even a crime in many places.)
Lo and behold, one of the items your enemy finds is a notebook in which you’ve pasted some visual sex jokes that people have sent you. He takes pictures of all the pages and then runs to the newspaper; because of your high-profile job, the newspapers all cover this. Should you have closed the back window? Should you have shredded the stuff before putting in the trash? In retrospect, sure. But how many of us live like that in everything we do?
Jeez, folks, Kozinski has a quirky sense of humor, and keeps some joke pictures and videos on his computer rather than throwing them away. I’m sure they aren’t the kinds of things some people would enjoy seeing. But he wasn’t trying to show them to those people! He was just minding his own business, keeping some files on his own private server. And now it’s a national news story.