My good friend Randy Cohen, is being taken to task quite a bit recently for a courageous column he wrote in the New York Times Magazine.
Here's the question:
I am an Internet technician. While installing software on my company’s computer network, I happened on a lot of pornographic pictures in the president’s personal directory, including some of young children — clearly less than 18, possibly early teens. It is probably illegal and is absolutely immoral. Must I call the police? I think so, but I need my job.
Yes, she's actually over 18 but can you tell?
Randy's answer was, in essence, do nothing. He wisely pointed out the situation was fraught with uncertainty (see above), and went on to discuss the obscene sentencing scheme for mere possession of images. In the end he opted to counsel silence. Not surprisingly the comments came fast and furious, including this from our friend Daniel Radosh.
The vitriol laden nonsense was to be expected given the current hysteria about child molestation, but frighteningly, there were some who made the disturbing argument that pursuant to the BC Child, Family and Community Service Act everyone (including the author of the letter) would have a duty to report. Now this argument has gained some traction, but it is in essence total nonsense and it's worth taking a moment to debunk.
The law cited above is quite similar to many here in the US. Almost every jurisdiction has child protective laws on the books and most impose reporting requirements. But here, as with everywhere, the condition precedent to the reporting requirement is some specific knowledge of a child being harmed. This is the critical bit--"A" child, as used in the statute, contemplates a particular child and the goal of the statute is to deal with children in danger in the context of a family.
Now if S.M.N had seen a picture of Maggie--his next door neighbor's 10 year old--in a sexually compromising position, then I'd agree he'd likely be obligated to report that abuse--but he'd be telling on Maggie's parents, not on the president of the company, because Maggie's parents had created the conditions contemplated by the statue. Here, with random pictures of unidentifiable kids who may or may not be in the jurisdiction, there is certainly no obligation at all. Under the critics bizarre reading of the statue, if a magazine published a photo of a woman hitting her child, every singe citizen who saw the photo and didn't call authorities would be criminally liable, as would anyone who viewed a U-tube video of random kids playing unsafely. Indeed, under her theory, a picture of a child soldier in Sudan would require a call to alert the authorities that somewhere a child was being harmed. This statue was never meant to penalize such behavior, nor criminalize most of the population.
Here there is no specificity, no indication even that a subject child might be residing in the jurisdiction. Though it's pretty to think that the law might require such vigilance, absent specificity, it most certainly doesn't.
In the end, despite the backlash, Randy's position is absolutely correct, and he deserves kudos for staking out and defending a proper if very unpopular position.