Is social media reviving a 17th Century legal weapon, the bill of attainder? Banned under Article I, Section 9, of the US Constitution, its zombie successor, the Twittermob, is just as unjust and just as cruel.
In the past week, another two careers have been destroyed by the Twittermob.
Let's begin with Harvard University. Student activists have forced one of America’s leading criminal lawyers and his wife, both lecturers at Harvard Law School, out of their positions as faculty deans at a residential college.
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, both African-Americans, have been the deans of Winthrop House since 2009. Sullivan has a stellar resumé. Apart from high-profile trials, he has been responsible for the release of more than 6,000 wrongfully incarcerated people in Louisiana.
But until recently, Sullivan was also part of the defence team for accused sex offender Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer whose antics kicked off the #MeToo movement. In the eyes of student activists, no good that Sullivan ever did could outweigh the enormity of defending him. Students at Winthrop House feel that Sullivan’s presence was deeply trauma-inducing.
Or at least that’s what the world outside Harvard Yard has been told. After three months a change.org petition to boot him out has gathered 341 signatures. That’s 341, not 341,000. But it was more than enough for Harvard’s administration. Professor Sullivan’s appointment at Winthrop was terminated.
And now moving to Washington DC, where a debut novelist’s future has been literally shredded. Natasha Tynes, a World Bank employee with a contract to publish her first novel, They Called Me Wyatt, complained on Twitter last week that an employee of the Washington Metro was eating on the train – verboten for passengers and staff.
Ooops. She was savaged on Twitter and the website Good Reads. It turns out that the employee was black. Her publisher is cancelling her novel. “Black women face a constant barrage of this kind of inappropriate behavior directed toward them and a constant policing of their bodies,” it said in a statement.
It turns out that Ms Tynes is also a person of colour. Not good enough. “Anti-Black racism is shamefully all too common among non-Black people of colour. I would add classism to the list of bigotries that we must fight too,” said one tweet.
The strategy of organising extra-judicial executions was familiar to the Puritan fanatics of England’s Long Parliament in the mid 17th Century.
Its most famous victim was the Earl of Strafford, known before his elevation to the House of Lords as Thomas Wentworth MP.
To squeeze a long and complex tale into a few sentences, Strafford was hated as King Charles I’s enforcer during the time of the English Civil Wars which pitted Cavaliers (royalists) against Roundheads (supporters of a largely Puritan Parliament). He was arrested and impeached before Parliament for “high misdemeanours”.
But Strafford was a canny lawyer and foiled the prosecutors’ increasingly desperate attempts to find him guilty. So his foes resorted to passing a bill of attainder. This simply declared Strafford guilty without the formality of a trial, just as the Twittermob has done for Sullivan and Tynes and so many others. The iniquity of this measure is explained by the 19th Century American legal historian St George Turner:
Bills of attainder are legislative acts passed for the special purpose of attainting particular individuals of treason, of felony, or to inflict pains and penalties beyond, or contrary to the common law. They are state-engines of oppression in the last resort, and of the most powerful and extensive operation, reaching to the absent and the dead, as well as to the present and the living. They supply the want of legal forms, legal evidence, and of every other barrier which the laws provide against tyranny and injustice in ordinary cases: being a legislative declaration of the guilt of the party, without trial, without a hearing, and often without the examination of witnesses, and subjecting his person to condign punishment, and his estate to confiscation and forfeiture.
The parallel with Twittermobs is uncanny. Attainder means that there is no need for law, for witnesses, or for evidence. Just for being himself, an individual is condemned to death, literally in Strafford’s case, professionally, in the cases of Sullivan and Tynes, outside of a civilised rule of law.
The execution of the Earl of Strafford in 1641
Outside civility as well. The MPs who voted to attaint Strafford had nothing to learn from the malice of the Twittermob. “It was never accounted cruelty or foul play for foxes and wolves to be knocked on the head,” said MP Oliver St John. “Stone dead hath no fellow,” according to the Earl of Essex – a proverb meaning Nothing can beat seeing your enemy stone-cold dead before you. In an early instance of doxing, the names of the 59 MPs who had voted against the bill of attainder were posted publicly as “Straffordians, and betrayers of their country.” “These were exposed to all the insults of the ungovernable multitude,” in the words of David Hume’s classic history.
The most instructive parallel to the 17th Century is the reaction of Charles I to the fate of the man who had been his loyal and most effective servant. Not only was Strafford to lose his head, but his property was to be confiscated by the Crown and his title extinguished. His family would be left penniless. Don't fret, said Charles. He promised Strafford that “upon the word of a king, you shall not suffer in life, honour or fortune”. But his promises were worthless. The spineless King signed the death warrant anyway.
The power of Twittermobs comes not only from the paralysing venom of their comments, but from the pressure they apply to heads of institutions. And like Charles, Tynes’s publishers and the Harvard administration buckled shamefully.
It might not do them much good. What was the fate of Charles I? Eight years later he followed Strafford to the scaffold, lamenting that God was punishing him for “that unjust sentence which I suffered to take effect.” Who knows? They may be summoned before the Twittermob in due course, as well.
The manifest injustice of bills of attainder inspired the drafters of the American Constitution forbid them utterly. They are, according to Number 44 of the Federalist Papers, “contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation”.
Is mobbing on social media any less unjust? Even if it is not possible to stop the mobbing, shouldn’t employees be protected under law against unfair dismissal by spineless employers? Something must be done to stop the usurpation of a long tradition of a fair trial for everyone by “the ungovernable multitude”.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet