Can (and should) social media achieve what the justice system can’t?
There’s been a lot of attention lately on the broad idea of “cancel culture”—it means a lot of things, including that people can take to social media and expose wrongdoing (or perceived wrongdoing) and get an almost immediate impact.
It can be democratic, a way to empower everyone who makes an Instagram account or a Twitter handle into someone who can have a voice in the public discourse that might otherwise exclude them.
It can also feel like a mob mentality, lacking the measured gravity of the criminal court process, in which guilt must first be proven beyond a reasonable doubt before a fair punishment is determined. The court process has systems to protect the rights of alleged victim and offender, and is designed to weigh all kinds of factors about evidence. It’s methodical and slow. And sometimes it fails.
In today’s paper, I wrote about a criminal case that was dismissed three years ago. Then a new claim that a former Salinas High School teacher, Juan Govea, had committed statutory rape surfaced, anonymously and on Instagram. The reaction was swift—there were calls on the leadership of the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History to terminate Govea; within five days of the Instagram post, he resigned.
Is it accountability delivered through a different mechanism than court, just a few years later? Or is it one job lost at one institution that’s not in fact related to the alleged crimes?
What seems clear is that the museum botched its handling of the case. While yes, people who commit crimes have rights too—and I believe deeply that even if convicted, people deserve second chances—I’ve been contacted by about a dozen current and former colleagues and board members in recent days to vent about the failures of museum administrators to communicate, about their failures to ensure Govea was not on the premises while he was on leave from the premises during the court proceedings, about retaliatory measures against board members and employees who spoke up with concerns.
But this is not really about this one workplace. It’s about justice, and whether justice is delivered in this way.
There are reasons victims might not trust the justice system, or the system fails to serve them. The original criminal case was dropped because Jane Doe refused to testify—not uncommon in a power relationship like that.
The justice system is imperfect, yes, but I’d hope that it could adapt to serve these young women. Both victims and perpetrators deserve a fair and measured process.
-Sara Rubin, editor, firstname.lastname@example.org