Private Pasts and Public Interests 2

Ed Brayton draws attention to an interesting legal case concerning Jason Van Dyke, the Texas-based legal advisor to Young Americans for Freedom at Michigan State University. The group became an object of notoriety last year when it brought in the British National Party leader Nick Griffin as a speaker, and Ed’s journalistic colleague Todd Heywood regularly reports on the YAF’s activities here. Ed explains the legal background:

Back in 2000, Van Dyke had some legal problems at MSU. He struck a plea bargain and later had the record expunged. Todd Heywood received the documents about that arrest from the court in East Lansing last year and wrote about them.

Van Dyke then filed to have those records sealed. Todd went to court to argue against sealing them, arguing that as a public figure who has inserted himself into a public controversy and as an officer of the court in Texas (where he practices law), the public has a right to know and he as a journalist has a right to report on Van Dyke’s history of illegal actions. This week, the judge agreed with Todd and refused to seal the records.

Van Dyke responded to this by describing Heywood as an “AIDS infected faggot” and announcing his plans to sue him and the judge:

Maybe, after spending a fortune on legal bills only to end up paying a hefty judgment, they will think twice before they tangle with me again.

This is, of course, the perennial boast of bullies with legal qualifications, who know they can use their professional position to make life difficult for investigators and the unduly curious; writing letters and making court filings doesn’t cost them a penny, while those on the receiving end are put to all kinds of inconveniences. In some cases, the sense of power doubtless also provides a weird thrill that serves as some sort of substitute for a normal emotional life.

Van Dyke apparently argued for he records to be sealed on the grounds of privacy. Heywood, although no lawyer, put his case very well in his submission to the court, arguing that Van Dyke is a “limited purpose” public figure, and his past acts should be matter of discussion:

Defendant is alleging that disclosure of the court documents will harm his reputation. However, by virtue of his leadership position as the Legal Advisor of MSU-YAF, and administrator position at [a website], Defendant has “thrust” himself into the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence their resolution…As such, the Defandant has opened himself and his political arguments up for dissection by the public body. Included in this dissection must be his criminal background because it shows a personal bias towards things such as gun possession on college campuses. Defendant is not a private person who is being attacked, he has sought and maintained a public role…and has sought, through the publication of his blog and commentaries…to thrust himself into public controversies…Thus sealing the records in this case will be damaging to a legitimate public discourse.

This “public figure” distinction is something we could very well do with in the UK.

This blog post is the sequel to a post I made here.