Media Should Protect Identity of Foley Page

Published October 03, 2006

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On Sept. 29, Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., resigned from the House of Representatives due to a scandal sparked by sexually provocative e-messages he had sent in 2005 to a (then) 16-year-old male page. (Congressional pages are high school juniors employed by Congress to run errands.)

A consensus of outrage is blasting Foley, as it should. But, currently, there are two individuals at the heart of this scandal: Foley and the former page. It is not clear how the media intends to treat the victim who, after all, is not a public figure and has not pressed charges, demanded compensation or sought attention.

Indeed, the only evidence of the victim's wishes came last year when he and his parents attempted to privately and quietly resolve the matter; they asked Foley to cease communication.

Will the media respect the teenager's privacy and reveal only what is necessary for them to accurately portray Foley's behavior and any possible cover-up? Or will they make 'a meal' of this young man?

So far, indications contradict each other.

For example, the victim's name has not been mentioned. Nevertheless, he has been described so specifically that discovering his name is a trivial matter. For example, the senator for whom he worked in D.C. has been widely identified as well as the specific period of employment. There are only several dozen pages per session and their names are on record at both the federal and state level.

Another contradiction: the exploitation of the teenager by Foley is widely and properly decried. Nevertheless, the victim's side of embarrassing exchanges with Foley have been broadcast repeatedly across national television. It is not clear why this has been done, since Foley's messages to the young man, in-and-of-themselves, are sufficient to establish Foley's guilt.

Those in the media must suspect that the boy and his parents do not welcome this exposure. For one thing, some messages suggest that the teen willingly participated in sex talk. Perhaps he was intimidated by Foley's status, but the impression created is not flattering.

Moreover, the messages naturally raise questions about whether the teen is gay or bisexual, questions he may not wish to discuss with anyone. He is almost certainly discussing them in his private life now. The specifics by which he has been identified mean that his family, friends, schoolmates, neighbors--perhaps his entire home town--know he is "the former page" in the spotlight.

In the past, I have argued vehemently for the media to name both an accused and accuser or to name neither. In this case, however, I argue that the victim's privacy should be respected. I do so for one simple reason: the victim is not an accuser.

When an accuser goes to the police and courts, he is attempting to impose a publicly-enforced penalty or sanction upon another human being and, so, he relinquishes some privacy. Foley's victim did not contact the law. There is no evidence that he sought any redress. Indeed, it is not even clear that Foley broke the law.

The legal confusion is largely due to variations from state-to-state in 'age of consent' laws. The age of consent for sexual intercourse in D.C., where the exchange presumably occurred, is 16. (Sexual acts have not been alleged in this case.) If some messages originated in Foley's home state of Florida, then the age of consent is 18.

Moreover, federal law generally defines a minor as being "under 18" and federal law may apply if emails crossed any state lines.

If no crime has yet been alleged and the victim has not 'gone public', then how is it possible that his private emails are part of the evening news?

Here's what is known:

Two Florida newspapers, the St. Petersburg Times and The Miami Herald, reportedly received copies almost a year ago. The source has not been identified but it is safe to assume that they didn't come from a fan of Foley.

The St. Petersburg Times claims it notified the senator for whom the page worked of Foley's emails. The senator notified the boy's parents. According to the senator's office, "the page's family wished to maintain as much privacy as possible and simply wanted the contact [with Foley] to stop."

The family's current silence seems to confirm the senator's statement. Moreover, the New York Times reported that neither newspaper "gathered enough solid material to publish a story." The papers would have almost certainly gone to Foley's victim for confirmation, which means the boy refused to go on record. The NYT continues, "It was not until the exchanges were published online last week, first by an anonymous blogger, then on the ABC News Web site, that the story gained momentum…"

In short, Foley's victim does not seem to have supplied his private correspondence to anyone. Indeed, the exchange may have been stolen from Foley's computer or files. There is also no evidence that the victim ever made a public accusation; the closest to this was his private request for assistance in making contact from Foley cease.

The media claims to be genuinely horrified by the exploitation of a teenager by a powerful man. If so, the equally powerful media should stop exploiting the victim's emails. It should protect rather than dangle the specifics of his identity.

In short, the media should give this kid a break.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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