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Sara-Ellen Amster, Ph.D. Headshot

Sterling's Lesson: Public Figures Have Few Privacy Rights

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The Internet has made it impossible for bigots to hide out and declare they are simply enjoying the American Dream like any other successful sports mogul. This is the case even if they have never paid any attention to Facebook or Twitter. Unlike journalists, who are supposed to follow ethical guidelines, everyone else has their own moral compass.

All a girlfriend or rival business associate needed was a smart phone and a plan to make private offensive speech very public.

This is because what you say matters, particularly if you are a public figure. As controlling owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, Donald Sterling enjoyed 33 years of great power, prestige and wealth.

But maybe his twisted beliefs threatened to derail him all along.

It is hardly an excuse that, as he told the New York Daily News, his mind was cloudy out of lust and jealousy for V. Stiviano, the woman who recorded his racist rant now heard round the world.

Fair or foul? Certainly the players would not accept the negative impact on the Clippers organization.

She wasn't a journalist and it isn't clear whether he knew he was being recorded. Under the standards of the old media, this would not be considered OK by any measure. The division between the public and private spheres that members of the press try to recognize, has totally eroded so that it is no longer an obstacle.

Maybe it has given way to new, more honest blogging, real sharing with raw audio that goes beyond the screwups of presidential candidates before they realize the mic is on. This is real journalism, unscripted, uncensored, unplugged.

A person needs to be truly above repproach these days. Donald Sterling has decidely not reached such a standard. He must have thought he was still living in the pre-digital age. He is 80.

I know Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies bemoans the fact there is little privacy anymore to make the press follow ethical standards, but let's be glad, unless of course, we just can't handle the unvarnished truth.

Does this incident weaken everyone's right to free speech? Not really.

I know this question has been asked by countless public figures before. Remember a friend at a party recorded Michael Phelps on video as the Olympic legend smoked a marijuana pipe? He too had a public image to uphold. Sterling had an entire sports franchise.

I think public figures certainly need to be more careful in their private lives as well as in their public ones. If anything, Donald Sterling's problems have cemented this warning for others. We know even private people have turned themselves into instant journalists in the world we live in, and you can't unring the bell of the digital revolution.