The grapevine moves at the speed of data, and news spreads in seconds. Louisville got a taste of what can happen when the internet meets accusations of sex crimes. This time the allegations did not involve a member of Metro City Council, but a local bar owner.
Internet justice was served swiftly and firmly.
Last week, the staff of the bar walked out and refused to work because of allegations that surfaced online. The bar owner then used social media to deny the allegations, and his bar has not opened since then.
Others who associated with the bar owner caught wind and swiftly ousted the person from their events, groups and other forums. And some who did business there severed their relationships with him immediately. It is unclear whether the police are investigating the claims, but women have said they intend to file reports with the police, or had done so in the past, to no avail.
It is important to note that Kentucky has no statute of limitations on filing charges in sex crimes. This means whether an assault happened today or 25 years ago, the system is available to seek justice. But what justice can women expect?
To be honest, not much.
According to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, most who are accused of rape will not be convicted. Only six of every 1,000 rapes will result in incarceration. Less than half of those crimes are ever reported to the police.
Enter the internet. In what has become a new cultural standard, there is no wait-time for a direct public response to accusations of well-known individuals. Some consider this kind of response the behavior of a hive mind and dangerous, mainly because it does not let the legal system to work its course first. People are taking immediate action to remedy what they perceive as threats to them and their communities. Herds move in sync when danger is present for a reason. There is power in numbers.
So what are we to make of internet justice in instances of sexual assault and in the wake of this most recent local scandal?
JoAnne Sweeny, an associate professor of law at UofL whose areas of expertise include First Amendment issues and women and gender, told LEO, “Using social media, women have found communities of support where they can share their stories and be believed.”
“Doing so has allowed victims to come to terms with their assaults and feel more empowered by talking about them. This sharing has also showed people how pervasive these abuses are.”
It is clear to me that the pervasiveness of toxic masculinity and sexual assault is finally being highlighted throughout our culture at the moment. It is not limited to the stories in Louisville — it has reached the top of our state and federal governments, including our “pussy grabbing” president.
What men have been allowed to do in the shadows is now under a powerful microscope.
“Quite honestly, this vigilantism appears to me to be the next logical step,” Sweeny continued. “No more content to simply listen to each other, women (and men) are now turning to the perpetrators and seeking justice.”
Is internet justice the wrong kind?
As someone asked me before I started writing this piece, “Should we wait for the legal system to have a chance to respond?”
Sweeny said the premise of the question is flawed.
“I think it is a mistake to say that the legal system hasn’t had a chance to respond — it absolutely did and failed,” said Sweeny, adding that some of the local women who posted on Facebook had said their reports to police went unheeded.
“That is the key thing here — vigilante justice usually doesn’t appear in a vacuum — it rises because the legal system has failed to bring about justice.”
That the Facebook page of the bar has been deleted, and the bar has not reopened, is the result of how quickly the news spread and the power of community consensus. Should we feel guilty about how Facebook was used to end this community relationship?
I say absolutely not. I stand with women, always.
Even though this person has not been charged or tried in court, the accusations came from more than one person. The response seems appropriate.
Said Sweeny, “I would, of course, prefer that the law step in and get it right, instead of people spreading stories and leaving no room for the alleged perpetrator to explain his side. But the law is notoriously bad at bringing rapists and those who commit sexual assault to justice and has been for a long time. So, this is an imperfect remedy that has come about because of a broken system that has repeatedly failed women. Women are finding spaces where they are now being believed and they are using that new power to get results. I can’t fault that, really.”
The statistics don’t lie. The justice system, as it is, doesn’t work.
It hasn’t worked for women.
It doesn’t work for people of color and certainly doesn’t serve justice to people without the means for powerful attorneys and expensive bails.
Why do we continue looking toward the justice system for justice?
Sweeny said the stories being posted are powerful. “And they are costing men their livelihoods and communities,” she said. “But I’m not sorry for that. Rape culture is so ingrained in our society that it probably takes a shock to start to undo it. I know many men who are now questioning themselves, worried that they may have transgressed in the past without knowing it. My own husband and I talked about that today. And I told him that I’m glad he feels discomfort.
“Perhaps this is the path we take to get to equality and, yes, men will have to suffer some discomfort. But, honestly, I think it’s their turn.”
Some women have expressed fear of being sued for slander or libel. But, Sweeny said, there likely is not much risk. Slander and libel suits are notoriously difficult to prosecute. The burden of proof generally lies with the person bringing the suit. If legal proceedings were brought against the women making the accusations, the remedies are few for the plaintiff.
“Even if sued, they are unlikely to have to pay damages or anything for two reasons: 1) if the allegations are true, there is no libel, and the plaintiff has to prove that the allegations are false, 2) even if false, they have to prove some form of malice — for public figures (like Kevin Spacey), the plaintiff has to prove that the defendant knew the allegations were false and wrote them anyway — very hard to do,” said Sweeny.
“For private figures, the plaintiff has to prove that the defendant failed to properly investigate the allegations. I think there are some interesting legal issues here, but I seriously doubt that any of the women accusers will go to court over this.”
So whether the allegations move to court, or the accused attempts to seek legal action against the women, it seems that internet justice is likely the only justice here, right or wrong. •