Virtual Stupidity, Real Consequences

And now for Life Surprise No. 357: When judges say “Don’t talk,” they mean it.

Seems obvious. But perhaps not to Joanne Fraill. She just became the first-ever British juror to be found in contempt of court for contacting a defendant on Facebook.

Yes, really.

The result? One eight-month sentence for Fraill, one wasted trial costing six million pounds, and one seriously ticked-off court system.

“Whether you communicate by Facebook, whether you research on the internet, whether you talk over your garden fence … you must understand when you take an oath as a member of a jury, when you disobey that oath … and it is discovered, you may very well be held in contempt,” Solicitor General Edward Garnier told Reuters afterward.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. For all its ubiquity in our lives – maybe even because of it – we have a way of treating the Internet as not quite real, a virtual Las Vegas where actions have no consequences.


It’s not a black hole. It’s not a Clark Kent-style phone booth. If anything, the Web in general and Facebook in particular is a stadium that seats millions. It feels anonymous, but any neighbor can overhear you, any photographer can grab a quick picture, and any individual can end up on the JumboTron for all the world to see.

And even there, talking remains talking. And rules remain rules.

In a world of virtual crowds and pseudo-anonymity, maybe it’s time for us all to remember Mom’s Restaurant Rule: don’t say anything in public that you wouldn’t want repeated and known. The rule saw its most frequent application when we went out to eat, a reminder that the subject of a critical remark might be sitting at the next table.

And there’s nowhere more public than the Internet.

I hope Fraill learns from this. I hope others can profit from it. If nothing else, maybe it can break through the solipsism that so often haunts the Net, the conviction that no rules, laws or feelings matter except one’s own.

At one time, Fraill might have shared that view.

She has quite a different conviction now.

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