Implications of the inaugural ball incident

In wake of the publication of photos from the GW Inaugural Ball in a French newspaper by unauthorized photographer Matt Stuart, students have come forward to describe their experiences with him. This incident showcases the ethical and moral issues of Stuart's actions. According to MediaFile, Magnum Photos is standing by Stuart because Stuart had no jurisdiction on the decisions Liberation made.

Kelly Williams, who for the sake of protecting her identity asked us use a pseudonym, came forward with her story to The Rival. This sophomore and her friend, another sophomore, bought their tickets to the ball before the election and decided to go rather than waste the money.

Her story is as follows:

“He took pictures of my friend and I kissing without our permission. My friend and I are both women and we are both not out to all of our friends and family. When we noticed him, we stopped and he came up to us and simply said, "make out." We were uncomfortable so we left, but then it dawned on us that he could still use those photos, and we were not comfortable with that. We hunted him down and personally asked him to delete those pictures because we were not comfortable with those being taken or published. He refused to do so because those pictures were "four cards ago" and when we insisted on him deleting the photos he called us crazy.”

In a phone interview, sophomore Emma Cohen spoke with The Rival as well. She and her roommate were in one of the pictures. Monday night, a friend saw the MediaFile article and noticed Cohen was in a picture. She sent Cohen the link to the French newspaper's website. Cohen remembered when this occurred.

"I honestly thought GW hired someone," she recalled. She is perplexed as to why there was a need to exploit some college kids just trying to have a fun night.

This is wrong on so many levels. Including the fact that Stuart snuck into an event illegally, portrayed GW students in a misleading manner, and published these photos in a French newspaper, this affects people on deeply personal levels. At school-sanctioned events students are supposed to feel comfortable in their own skins and enjoy the time with their friends and peers.

William Youmans, an assistant professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs who specializes in global news and media law, agreed to speak with The Rival about this case. It should be noted that is an extremely nuanced case as there are many people, situations, countries, social media platforms, publications, and case laws involved. In a phone interview, he offered insight based off his impressions of the matter.

Youmans noted several aspects about what happened at the ball;

1) This was a private event, so there are grounds for trespassing. The GW inaugural ball was a ticketed event and the press had to be pre-approved. Stuart did not have a credential.

2) Several potential grounds for a legal case in the U.S. or France could be: privacy violations and libel or false light (regarding the captions on the photos).

3) Due to the fact that these pictures were published in a French newspaper, it could be an option to pursue legal action in France. According to a publication by Taylor Wessing, an international law firm, "The privacy jurisdiction France is more claimant-friendly than in England and the U.S." France has some of the strictest laws regarding privacy in the world. Additionally, laws have been amended in recent years to protect people's digital freedoms. Libel laws make it easy to sue.

Even though this case deals with non-French citizens, those involved could access French or European courts since the newspaper and many of the social media accounts are based in France.

4) The students in the photos could have case for a violate of privacy. Youmans stated how this is "ethically problematic" since these are private individuals.

5) Lastly, there is the potential for a right to be forgotten case. In certain instances in the European Union, people can ask search engines to remove links that lead to personal information about them that is, "inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive," as outlined in this article. Youmans reflected how this circumstance exemplifies why some take up interest in privacy protections other than what law in the U.S. permits.

The professor stated in a follow-up email,

"The first amendment tradition has tended to balance the free press and free expression interests against personal privacy. Europe has tilted more in the other direction."

It should be noted that there are a few possible setbacks. One, even in a private setting, when the crowd is large enough people are expected to act as though they are in a public space. Two, a person taking pictures with a visible camera can be considered implied consent. Once again, these are impressionistic observances of what happened at the ball, not explicit legal advice.

GW has made it clear that Stuart did not have credentials for the event, as stated in the MediaFile article. GW requested that the article is taken down. Magnum Photos removed a tweet about the photo journal and deleted an Instagram post about it from his personal account.

As new developments arise The Rival will be continuously updating this article and others put out about this situation. One thing is for certain: there are immense moral and ethical lines that were crossed, and GW students' wellbeing has been hindered.

Originally published by Courtney Buble on on 1.25.17.

CampusBrandon Bish