• LAW: Privacy

That’s none of your business.”

“A man’s home is his castle.”

“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

All of us have heard these and variations of similar statements. They share the common element of privacy. In our social world, there is personal information that we do not want to share or that we want only a few people to know.

This information may include topics such as

— physical conditions and medical information

— financial details

— personal habits such as what books we read and movies we watch and even what web sites we visit

— attitudes on public issues

— religious practices

— sexual orientation and preferences

Most of us believe that we have a right to keep such things private – that there is a legal right of privacy. Actually, however, the U.S. Constitution grants no such right and says nothing about individual privacy. The Constitution does have a provision preventing the government from conducting warrantless searches, and some people have tried to stretch that provision into a legal right of privacy. That is a stretch.

Still, the culture in which we live gives us some expectation of privacy, particularly in certain legally recognized exchanges of information such as communications between a lawyer and client, a husband and wife, a priest and confessor, etc.

Courts in the United States and elsewhere have recognized this expectation of privacy and have carved out a right of privacy that has four aspects:

  • Publication of private information. Courts have sometimes held journalists liable because the journalist or news organization published information that was considered so embarrassing and unnecessary that it needed legal relief. These cases are rare, however, and the standards on what constitutes such information are not clear.
  • Intrusion. When a journalist (or anyone else) invades private property, the journalist can be held liable for the information obtained in doing that. Using electronic devises to conduct such an invasion is often thought to be the same as a physical invasion.
  • False light. This is publishing information that tends to give a false or harmful impression about a person to those who read or see the report. False light is somewhat different from libel – damaging a person’s reputation – although there are many similarities. False light convictions are also fairly rare because courts have no set standards by which to judge situations of this type.
  • Appropriation. This means using a person’s voice or image without his or her permission for commercial purposes. Appropriation applies to advertising and marketing, but it does not apply to news. That is, if you take a picture of a famous person visiting your area, put it in the newspaper, and that newspaper is then sold to make money for the news organization – none of this is appropriate.

The work of the journalist is diametrically opposed to any right or expectation of privacy. Journalists gather and disseminate information, and efforts and concepts that prevent them from doing this are things that journalists, as professionals, oppose.

But the feeling that there is indeed a right of privacy in our society is so strong that journalists much acknowledge the expectation of privacy and respect it where they can and where it is legally mandated. Consequently, you should remember certain things about working as a journalist:

You do not need to ask permission to take someone’s picture if that person is in a public place.

You do not need permission to quote what someone says in public.

You should not record a conversation unless you ask for permission of the person you are recording.

Lawyers and police officers cannot legally order you away from a public place or stop you from taking pictures or talking with whomever you want to talk with.

A person may be on private property, but if he or she can be seen from a public place, then that person has no expectation of privacy.

Eavesdropping on a conversation in a public place is not illegal, although it may be unethical or distasteful.

Nothing that is put on a web site, social networking site or even an email can be expected to remain private.

Journalists are not bound by the confidentiality agreements that other people make.

Journalists are human beings and members of society and often have the same expectations of privacy that other non-journalists do. That should not prevent them from doing their jobs – from attempting to obtain accurate information legally and ethically, even when the sources of that information would rather they would not. Journalists owe their best efforts to their audiences, not to their sources.

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