Return to Op-Ed page

Cass R. Sunstein, Reinforce The Walls Of Privacy, in The New York Times at 23 (September 6, 1997)


The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, has left us with difficult questions about the relationship between free speech and privacy: Does the law allow celebrities to protect themselves from harassment? And should the law do more?

The answer to both is an emphatic yes. Existing laws can help insure privacy, but the time has come for some creative thinking about other possibilities.

Everyone, even the most famous people, can use laws against trespass to prevent intrusions on private property and the law of libel to protect against intentional or reckless falsehoods. Most states provide other protections as well. It is generally grounds for a lawsuit, for example, if someone intrudes on your private domain by eavesdropping electronically or wiretapping.

The law also prohibits using a celebrity's name in advertising without permission. A cereal company cannot claim or suggest that Michael Jordan enjoys its product unless Mr. Jordan agrees.

In addition, state laws generally prohibit news organizations from placing people in a "false light in the public eye." A newspaper can be sued if, for example, it prints a photograph of two famous people at dinner and wrongly implies that they are romantically involved. Many states also restrict public disclosure of private facts, even if what is said is true.

The free-speech arguments being heard in the aftermath of Diana's death have, of course, already been used against these existing laws. And in general, courts have concluded that such privacy protections do not violate the First Amendment.

The First Amendment is not an absolute, courts have said, and it allows states some room to restrict speech in the interest of safeguarding privacy. Even if trespass law interferes with what the press would like to do, it is hardly unconstitutional, and commercial exploitation of celebrities' names can be banned without offending the First Amendment.

Harder constitutional questions arise when states allow claims involving "false light" and the disclosure of private facts. The Supreme Court has said surprisingly little about those questions. In its only major ruling on the subject, 30 years ago, the Court said that in "matters of public interest" the press had special latitude, but the Justices did not define their terms. Among the things that remain uncertain is the extent to which state law can protect the privacy of television stars and athletes, as opposed to elected officials.

It is in such areas that the law could do more. Some states might build on their existing laws to create a firmer wall of privacy around people who do not want to be exploited, harassed or humiliated. States might, for example, try specifically forbidding photographers to invade a private domain through the use of long-distance photographic equipment. They might allow people to recover damages if they have been repeatedly harassed about a personal tragedy. They might make it a misdemeanor to publish photographs taken without permission in a home or other private domain.

In such experiments, however, a good deal of creativity and care is required. Broadly drawn laws would create problems. For example, the First Amendment would almost certainly bar any law that might have been used to forbid the publication of the famous photographs of Gary Hart with Donna Rice. These kinds of hurdles, though, should not discourage experimentation, because it is perfectly legitimate for states to experiment with new ways to adapt to social and technological change.

All this leaves a final question: Why should the rest of us care about intrusions on the privacy of celebrities and other famous people, hardly the most disadvantaged members of society? There are two reasons.

First, a democracy is badly served when newspapers and television focus so intensely on the personal joys and tragedies of famous people. This kind of "news" crowds out more serious issues, and there is an important difference--as the Constitution's framers well knew, and as many people today appear to have forgotten--between the public interest and what interests the public.

Second, intrusions on the privacy of celebrities are, at least potentially, intrusions on the privacy of everyone. New technology is making it extremely difficult for both celebrities and ordinary people to insulate themselves from public view, especially at their most vulnerable moments.

People who have lost a house or a child or a spouse are often unable to grieve privately, simply because of the persistence of someone who wants to exploit their tragedy. Now that privacy cannot easily be created by simple physical space, it is all the more important to insure the existence of private enclaves, through changes in attitude or, if necessary, through new law. If famous people are unable to protect themselves against public inspection of their private lives, the same may eventually be true for the rest of us.


Return to Op-Ed page