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Tweeting a couple's fight in a Burger King: Is it ethical?

November 9, 2011 |  5:08 pm

Earlier this week, a young couple had a loud and messy argument in a Burger King somewhere in New England. For the people who witnessed it, the fight was embarrassing, uncomfortable and impossible to ignore. The couple reportedly made no effort to keep it private.

But some might argue that Andy Boyle, a newsroom developer for the Boston Globe, tread on ethically questionable ground when, instead of scarfing down his French fries and Whopper and fleeing the restaurant as quickly as possible, he decided instead to tweet the entire argument to his 3,000 followers -- with pictures and video.

Here's a sampling:

"I am listening to a marriage disintegrate at a table next to me in this restaurant. Aaron Sorkin couldn't write this any better."

"These kids must be 21, tops. His main complaint? She doesn't clean the dishes when his mom asks her to."

"She is sobbing quite loud. He gets up and walks out. She stays. We all feel quite awkward. Do we console her? No one does anything."

By the next tweet, the guy is back in the restaurant and Boyle continues to relate the details of the couple's argument. The wife says she thinks it's unfair that her husband gets to play video games while his mom tells her to do dishes.  The husband says he just wants the woman to be a better wife.

"The restaurant does not believe him," tweets Boyle.

Boyle is a good writer, and his tweets are funny and relatable, but did he cross a line when instead of merely sharing the uncomfortable experience of watching an anonymous couple engaged in a fight, he included video clips and potentially identifying photographs of the two people involved?

It's possible Boyle is wondering the same thing. In a recent view of his tweets from the restaurant, the photos are no longer available.

Boyle did not respond to a request for comment from The Times, but Anupam Chander, a professor of law at UC Davis, said that, legally at least, Boyle did nothing wrong.

"In general, if something is happening in a public place, you can film it and take pictures of it and make it available to the world," Chander said in an interview with The Times. "The freedom of speech in the United States is very broad."

But Chander, who specializes in Internet law, acknowledged that this freedom of speech might have a downside for someone who makes a scene in public.

"It does seem unfair to this young couple, who may not have been able to control themselves in this emotional moment but certainly didn't think they were risking the scrutiny of the world," he said. "All of us have done something in public that is embarrassing, but we wouldn't want our public breakups or public errors to be exposed to the world or memorialized forever in cyberspace."


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Photo: The Burger King crowns. Credit: Paul Sakuma / Associated Press