Right to Privacy

Although privacy is not a right specifically mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court has held that the right exists, and no laws, from those regulating reproductive rights to vehicle searches, may interfere with an individual's right to privacy without a compelling reason. The constitutional right to privacy protects an individual against government intrusion into his or her life on matters of "the home, the family, marriage, motherhood, procreation, and child rearing."

An individual's right to privacy is two-pronged: it is a privacy interest in making decisions, and one in avoiding disclosure of personal matters. Supreme Court Justice Brandeis famously explained the principal of privacy in 1928 as "the right to be let alone-the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men." Since that time, privacy rights have been expanded and restricted in different areas.

Additionally, Congress has enacted several laws protecting certain privacy rights, including:

  • The Privacy Act of 1974 (federal records misuse)
  • Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) (restricting access to student records
  • The Right to Financial Privacy Act of 1978 (RFPA) (disclosure of bank records)
  • The Privacy Protection Act of 1980 (documents of an individual engaged in public communication)
  • The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) (privacy in medical records).

Sidebar: The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows private citizens to access government and public records. The federal law has been enacted by the states as well to provide for access to state records. Anyone can make an FOIA request and agencies typically have forms available. Corporations, such as newspaper companies, can also make FOIA requests. You may be charged reasonable fees, such as for copying, by the agency providing the records. Documents and records that relate to national interests, such as security, are exempt for FOIA requests.