Since the foundation of the Constitution, American citizenshave been ensured several privacy rights. As technology advances and society becomesmore complex, the concern over national security has likewise sky-rocketed. Asa result, a multitude of amendments, laws, and statues have been establishedthat have altered the balance of personal liberty and national security. Fromthe late eighteenth to the mid twentieth century, privacy laws in the UnitedStates were defined by the Constitution and through several amendments, andwere only altered slightly through Supreme Court Cases.
However, at the turn ofthe twentieth century, with advanced technology and terrorism on the rise,privacy laws underwent several defining changes through acts such as the PrivacyAct and the Patriot Act. Today the balance between national security andpersonal liberty has become heavily controversial begging the question: To whatextent are we willing to give up our privacy for our protection?Privacy in the ConstitutionThe concept of privacy has taken on several differentmeanings since the foundation of the United States Constitution. Initially,privacy strictly referred to personal autonomy, or the individual right togovern one’s own actions or experiences. Although it is never distinctly statedin the Constitution, there are several amendments in place that protect certainaspects of this right. “These include the First Amendment (guarantees freedomof speech, religion, and association), the Third Amendment (prevents prohibitsquartering of troops in private homes), the Fourth Amendment (protection fromunreasonable searches and seizures), and the Fifth Amendment (freedom from self-incrimination)(Sharp).
Other amendments such as the Ninth Amendment which gives rights notmentioned in the Constitution to the people, and the Fourteenth Amendment whichprevents states from abridging the privileges/immunities of US citizens, also contributeto the overall right of personal privacy. Like with any idea,there are conflicting sides to the matter of privacy. Especially prominentduring the Age of Enlightenment (late nineteenth century) was the philosophy oflibertarianism which highlights the right of the individual in almost everyaspect of life. The countervailing position is known as conservatism whichstates that individuals must be protected from their vices through moral law.Another factor that heavily contributes towards the balance of privacy insociety is the interests of the government. “Those compelling interests… includethe promotion of public safety, public health, mortality, and improving thequality of life” (Han). Therefore, as natural consequence of these varyingforces, the definition of privacy in the United States is constantly beingaltered and modified.Effects of Supreme Court cases on personal privacy.
Unlike the district andappellate courts below it, the decisions of the Supreme Court become the law ofthe land. Thus, the nine justices that compromise the Supreme Court are eachvested with immense capabilities that have only expanded since the lateeighteenth century. The power of the Supreme Court has primarily grown in twoareas: equitable remedy & judicial review.
Equitable remedy refers toinstances in which a plaintiff requests that the court take specific actions tosolve a problem. In several cases the resulting remedies have had long-rangingpolitical effects including mandated environmental cleanups and dictatedconditions in prisons. In terms of judicial review, the Supreme Court has begunto fully exercise their power to “invalidate actions of other governmentalactors, if these actions are in violation of the nation’s constitution.” Withthat being said, decisions regarding personal privacy in the Supreme Court havehad enduring effects.One of the earliest and most influential Supreme Courtcases regarding privacy was Olmstead v.United States which occurred in 1928. The case was decided by a vote of5-4, with a majority opinion ruling that the wiretapping of telephones by thegovernment didn’t obstruct the Fourth Amendment’s security against irrationalsearches and seizures. Although unheeded the initial decision, Justice Brandeis’sdissenting opinion was of great importance:The progressof science in furnishing the government with means of espionage is not likelyto stop with wiretapping.
Ways may some day be developed by which thegovernment, without removing papers from secret drawers, can reproduce them incourt. . . .
Can it be that the Constitution affords no protection against suchinvasions of individual security (Shaw). Four years later Brandeis’s viewpoint would be adopted inthe majority opinion of Katz v. UnitedStates (1967) which served to overrulethe legal definition of a “search’.
In themid-twentieth century many more Supreme Court cases would occur concerning “zoneof privacy”. Zone of privacy is a term that pertains to marriage, motherhood,procreation, and other family matters. The first case in which this zone wasbrought into the spotlight was in Griswoldv.
Connecticut (1965). In this case two Connecticut criminal laws werechallenged that “denied the use of married couples and made assisting orabetting the use of contraceptives illegal” (Hass). The majority opinion was decided7-2 supporting Griswold’s argument that martial relationships should be privateand without such regulations. Another case concerning this zone of privacy is Stanley v. Georgia which tookplace in 1969.
Just as in Griswold fouryears prior, this case further explored the interpretation of the FirstAmendment. The court ruled unanimously in favor of Stanley that “the right toprivacy protected a person’s right to possess and view pornography in his ownhome” (Sharp). Despite these numerous instances inwhich the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of privacy, this is not always thecase. For example, in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986)the majority opposed the view that “any kind of private sexual conduct between consentingadults in constitutionally insulated from state proscription” (Sharp).
Thedecision was eventually overturned in Lawrencev. Texas (2003), but the fact that the Supreme Court has made thesecontroversial decisions highlights their often-controversial authority. One ofthe court’s most controversial decisions concerning privacy was without a doubtRoe v. Wade. Under a Texas statute,the plaintiff Norma McCorvey was unable to receive an abortion and sued thestate of Texas.
Similar to decisions involving segregation, her caseessentially challenged all state abortion laws in the country. The SupremeCourt ruled 7-2 in favor of Roe which thereby advanced personal privacy.However, though the court technically expanded the right to privacy, they weremet with enormous backlash in the forms of protests and pro-life groups. Thissituation is a representation of a classic conservative viewpoint as manypeople believed it was necessary for some laws to exist to protect humans fromimmoral actions.
Although the legality of abortion has remained strong since1973, many parties continue to fight for regulations on its practice.Change of privacyin a technologically advancing world1. Privacy ActIn the age of internetand advancing technology, the right of privacy has become increasingly prevalentas well as cluttered. Upcoming technologies are making it substantially simplerfor governments and organizations to track the intricacies of our onlineactivities. Corporations collect our information to sell to the highest bidderwhile an expanding surveillance apparatus and outdated privacy laws allow thegovernment to monitor us like never before.