That Right to Privacy? Find it in the Constitution please.
Welcome to 2010, where we’ve said goodbye to our individual right to privacy — or so some people erroneously imagine. You see, there’s just one inconvenient truth to the parallels often made between the ubiquitous surveillance of today and the predictions made in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Privacy is nothing short of a recent phenomenon. After all, for much of human history people lived in small villages where everyone knew everyone else’s business.
But we’ve now entered the 21st century, where the so-called right to privacy is seen by some as the fulcrum of our commonality. People today feel an entitlement to secrecy.
Think Washington State. Here, evangelical Christians who opposed a law that would have granted same-sex couples relationship recognition are demanding the “right” to keep their names private. Of course, a right to privacy does not exist in the Constitution (indeed, this is the argument social conservatives have used to regulate private behaviors, such as access to birth control and even masturbation), but the group claims that if they can propose a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, they can also propose an amendment guaranteeing the right to privacy. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case to determine whether the implicit right to privacy is one already enshrined in the Constitution.
There’s just one catch. This group wasn’t a private entity seeking to disseminate their messages of intolerance and hate in a Church, home or private business. Members of the group signed a petition seeking a public referendum with one goal: to create a second, inferior of people (heterosexuals, whose relationships would have full recognition by all government agencies, and homosexuals, an inferior class, who would not even have hospital visitation rights).
Clap your hands if you can locate a right to privacy in the Constitution (sorry Tinkerbell, but there is none), and clap once more if you believe this right to anonymity means that an assembly of well-connected and wealthy persons may systematically discriminate against certain minority groups.
We can have and will have opinions about the choices that gay and lesbian couples make in celebrating their relationships. And we are free to respond accordingly with our own personal thoughts and opinions. But we have no right, be that in or in the spirit of the Constitution, to demand that the comments we air in public — by signing a public petition seeking a public referendum — be kept secret, because the general citizenry has a duty to uphold the truth. And truth can only be established through a trail of accountability. Signatories to a petition must take ownership of their opinions and be prepared to support their views when questioned by a curious citizen.
Unfortunately, there have been other attempts this year to limit the release of information.
Legislators in Alabama, Ohio and Wisconsin want to ban the release of 911 recordings, Maine is considering a bill that would prevent the public release of birth and marriage records (such documents are currently in the public domain), and Oklahoma wants to give district attorneys the capacity to keep autopsy reports secret.
Where does this desire to conceal public information come from?
Simply put: certain illusions continue to plague privacy concerns. Lawmakers have written bills in the past limiting the release of information because they fear the news media may use such content to embarrass a citizen. Withholding information from the institutional press would thus spare people the anxiety that would come with details of their lives being shared with strangers (or so lawmakers imagine).
Privacy concerns are real, and most people agree that some secrecy is paramount to personal security and preventing identity theft. But too much secrecy creates an environment where abuse and misconduct are tolerable. It is only with the free flow of information that a free society is possible, because secrecy weakens the system of checks and balances that journalists use when serving as a ‘watchdog’ over the actions of both government officials and private citizens.
History shows that when the press does their job, people who abuse their power (intentionally or otherwise) are reprimanded by the public. Be they police chiefs or small business owners, journalists keep an eye on the inner workings of society to keep people accountable for their actions. So let’s release enough information in Washington State to keep referendum signatories answerable to the general public. Rather than just talk of transparency, we must release the signee names (so that opponents may boycott their businesses if they wish) and signatures (in order to verify the authenticity of each signee), but it shouldn’t be necessary to release social security numbers.
Privacy is nothing but a byword for ‘I have something to hide.’ Let’s engage our free press by allowing them to monitor the demographics and agendas of those who are supporting our public referendums.
After all, in a free society, what is the worst that could happen by releasing a little more information — we would have to make decisions not using lies and rhetoric, but upon empirical evidence?
AYDEN FABIEN FÉRDELINE is a writer and journalist.