Does Texas Judge William Adams Deserve Internet Vigilantism for Allegedly Beating His Daughter?

Even by the standards of the Internet, which is so loaded with disturbing ideas and media, the video that allegedly shows Texas family judge William Adams beating his teenage daughter is horrifying. In the seven-minute clip, posted recently to YouTube, a man with a thick Texan accent uses his belt on the arms, butt, and legs of a screaming, crying teenage girl. (If you want to watch the video for yourself, which I can’t say I recommend, it’s here.) The crime she stands accused of: downloading music illegally via a peer-to-peer network. The video was allegedly filmed in 2004, when Hillary Adams was 16.

She posted the footage to YouTube with the following explanation:

2004: Arkansas County Court-At-Law Judge William Adams took a belt to his own teenage daughter as punishment for using the internet to acquire music and games that were unavailable for legal purchase at the time. She has had ataxic cerebral palsy from birth that led her to a passion for technology, which was strictly forbidden by her father’s backwards views. The judge’s wife was emotionally abused herself and was severely manipulated into assisting the beating and should not be blamed for any content in this video. The judge’s wife has since left the marriage due to the abuse, which continues to this day, and has sincerely apologized and repented for her part and for allowing such a thing, long before this video was even revealed to exist. Judge William Adams is not fit to be anywhere near the law system if he can’t even exercise fit judgement as a parent himself. Do not allow this man to ever be re-elected again. His “judgement” is a giant farce. Signed, Hillary Adams, his daughter.

Hillary Adams explained her decision to post the video now to a local Texas news station: “My father’s harassment was getting really bad, so I decided to finally publish the video that I had been sitting on for 7 years.” Two weeks ago, before the video surfaced, users on the (not always dependable) community discussion site Topix alleged that Adams was known locally for being soft on child abusers.

The video disseminated rapidly across the Internet after being picked up by Reddit. Reddit can be a strange gathering ground, a place to find both the best viral videos and some of pretty vile behavior. The site was recently in the news for its controversial “Jailbait” section, in which users post pictures of clothed, but provocatively posed, teenage girls. The site operates by its own, sometimes peculiar code of ethics, and obviously this video offended their sense of morality. Once exposed, Redditers and others began taking their own revenge, posting Adams’ home address and phone number; many responded by ordering pizzas to be delivered to his house. On a Facebook page called “Don’t Re-Elect Judge William Adams,” one person also posted the information for the local sheriff’s department and encouraged others to call and report the video; when I spoke to police Chief Tim Jayroe, he said that they have been inundated with calls since last night—as many as five in 10 minutes, from people in New York, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas as well as Texas locals. Jayroe says, “We were made aware of the video last night, and there is an ongoing investigation.” Meanwhile, the pizzas will probably keep coming to Adams’ home. Justice can’t move as quickly as an infuriated Redditer.

There is a grand tradition around the world of offended Internet denizens punishing people for not behaving, an extrajudicial “human flesh search engine.” The term, which originated in China, refers to groups using the Internet to search for details of wrongdoers—their place of employment, their home address. In one 2006 case, a woman was filmed squashing a kitten to death with her high heel for a fetish video; the video left many shocked and offended, and groups banded together to reveal her identity and shame her. In South Korea, a girl who let her dog defecate on a subway had to quit university after her name and image were splashed around the country.

When a crime horrifies us, the Internet makes it easier to indulge curiosity. Certainly I’ve looked people up on Facebook after reading a news story about a criminal (or someone whose only crime was stupidity). But when it comes to exacting revenge—even in the relatively benign form of a pizza prank—the waters get murky. While the dog-poop girl of South Korea was merely violating social mores (and being gross, frankly), Adams’ alleged crime is heinous; if the video is an accurate portrayal of what happened, then the disgust expressed around the Web is certainly valid. Is Internet vigilantism ever OK? Is it fine to engage in a good old-fashioned pizza-ordering prank? If so, when does Internet vigilantism cross the line and begin interfering with the proper judicial system?

Update, Nov. 2, 1:30 p.m.: Since this posting, Adams has admitted that he is the man in the video but claims, “It’s not as bad as it looks on tape.” In response to the deluge of Internet vitriole (including alleged death threats against staffers at the county courthouse), Hillary Adams has tweeted, “It is my wish that people stop threatening my father and start offering professional help. That is what he really needs.”