Interpreting the Bill of Rights


Although the term privacy does not appear in the Constitution or Bill of Rights, scholars have interpreted several Bill of Rights provisions as an indication that James Madison and Congress sought to protect a common-law right to privacy as it would have been understood in the late eighteenth century: a right to be free of government intrusion into our personal life, particularly within the bounds of the home. For example, we could perhaps see the Second Amendment as standing for the common-law right to self-defense in the home; the Third Amendment as a statement that government soldiers should not be housed in anyone’s home; the Fourth Amendment as setting a high legal standard for allowing agents of the state to intrude on someone’s home; and the due process and takings clauses of the Fifth Amendment as applying an equally high legal standard to the government’s taking a home or property (reinforced after the Civil War by the Fourteenth Amendment). Alternatively, we could argue that the Ninth Amendment anticipated the existence of a common-law right to privacy, among other rights, when it acknowledged the existence of basic, natural rights not listed in the Bill of Rights or the body of the Constitution itself.See Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965). This discussion parallels the debate among the members of the Supreme Court in the Griswold case. Lawyers Samuel D. Warren and Louis Brandeis (the latter a future Supreme Court justice) famously developed the concept of privacy rights in a law review article published in 1890.Samuel Warren and Louis D. Brandeis. 1890. “The Right to Privacy,” Harvard Law Review 4, No. 193.

Although several state constitutions do list the right to privacy as a protected right, the explicit recognition by the Supreme Court of a right to privacy in the U.S. Constitution emerged only in the middle of the twentieth century. In 1965, the court spelled out the right to privacy for the first time in Griswold v. Connecticut, a case that struck down a state law forbidding even married individuals to use any form of contraception.Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965) Although many subsequent cases before the Supreme Court also dealt with privacy in the course of intimate, sexual conduct, the issue of privacy matters as well in the context of surveillance and monitoring by government and private parties of our activities, movements, and communications. Both these senses of privacy are examined below.

Sexual Privacy

Although the Griswold case originally pertained only to married couples, in 1972 it was extended to apply the right to obtain contraception to unmarried people as well.Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438 (1972). Although neither decision was entirely without controversy, the “sexual revolution” taking place at the time may well have contributed to a sense that anti-contraception laws were at the very least dated, if not in violation of people’s rights. The contraceptive coverage controversy surrounding the Hobby Lobby case shows that this topic remains relevant.

The Supreme Court’s application of the right to privacy doctrine to abortion rights proved far more problematic, legally and politically. In 1972, four states permitted abortions without restrictions, while thirteen allowed abortions “if the pregnant woman’s life or physical or mental health were endangered, if the fetus would be born with a severe physical or mental defect, or if the pregnancy had resulted from rape or incest”; abortions were completely illegal in Pennsylvania and heavily restricted in the remaining states.See Rachel Benson Gold. March 2003. “Lessons from Before Roe: Will Past be Prologue?” The Guttmacher Report on Public Policy 6, No. 1. (March 4, 2016). On average, several hundred American women a year died as a result of “back alley abortions” in the 1960s.

The legal landscape changed dramatically as a result of the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade,Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973). in which the Supreme Court decided the right to privacy encompassed a right for women to terminate a pregnancy, at least under certain scenarios. The justices ruled that while the government did have an interest in protecting the “potentiality of human life,” nonetheless this had to be balanced against the interests of both women’s health and women’s right to decide whether to have an abortion. Accordingly, the court established a framework for deciding whether abortions could be regulated based on the fetus’s viability (i.e., potential to survive outside the womb) and the stage of pregnancy, with no restrictions permissible during the first three months of pregnancy (i.e., the first trimester), during which abortions were deemed safer for women than childbirth itself.

Starting in the 1980s, Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican presidents began to roll back the Roe decision. A key turning point was the court’s ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, in which a plurality of the court rejected Roe’s framework based on trimesters of pregnancy and replaced it with the undue burden test, which allows restrictions prior to viability that are not “substantial obstacle[s]” (undue burdens) to women seeking an abortion.Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992). Thus, the court upheld some state restrictions, including a required waiting period between arranging and having an abortion, parental consent (or, if not possible for some reason such as incest, authorization of a judge) for minors, and the requirement that women be informed of the health consequences of having an abortion. Other restrictions such as a requirement that a married woman notify her spouse prior to an abortion were struck down as an undue burden. Since the Casey decision, many states have passed other restrictions on abortions, such as banning certain procedures, requiring women to have and view an ultrasound before having an abortion, and implementing more stringent licensing and inspection requirements for facilities where abortions are performed. Although no majority of Supreme Court justices has ever moved to overrule Roe, the restrictions on abortion the Court has upheld in the last few decades have made access to abortions more difficult in many areas of the country, particularly in rural states and communities along the U.S.–Mexico border (Figure). However, in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (2016), the Court reinforced Roe 5–3 by disallowing two Texas state regulations regarding the delivery of abortion services.Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, 579 U.S. ___ (2016).

Photo A shows a group of people in a line holding signs. The signs that are visible read “Stop abortion now” and “Abortion hurts women”. Photo B shows a group of people in a line in front of a building holding signs. The signs that are visible read “Trust Women” and “Pro-life that’s a lie you don’t care if women die”.
A “March for Life” in Knoxville, Tennessee, on January 20, 2013 (a), marks the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. On November 15, 2014, protestors in Chicago demonstrate against a crisis pregnancy center (b), a type of organization that counsels against abortion. (credit a: modification of work by Brian Stansberry; credit b: modification of work by Samuel Henderson)

Beyond the issues of contraception and abortion, the right to privacy has been interpreted to encompass a more general right for adults to have noncommercial, consensual sexual relationships in private. However, this legal development is relatively new; as recently as 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that states could still criminalize sex acts between two people of the same sex.Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986). That decision was overturned in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas, which invalidated state laws that criminalized sodomy.Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003).

The state and national governments still have leeway to regulate sexual morality to some degree; “anything goes” is not the law of the land, even for actions that are consensual. The Supreme Court has declined to strike down laws in a few states that outlaw the sale of vibrators and other sex toys. Prostitution remains illegal in every state except in certain rural counties in Nevada; both polygamy (marriage to more than one other person) and bestiality (sex with animals) are illegal everywhere. And, as we saw earlier, the states may regulate obscene materials and, in certain situations, material that may be harmful to minors or otherwise indecent; to this end, states and localities have sought to ban or regulate the production, distribution, and sale of pornography.

Privacy of Communications and Property

Another example of heightened concerns about privacy in the modern era is the reality that society is under pervasive surveillance. In the past, monitoring the public was difficult at best. During the Cold War, regimes in the Soviet bloc employed millions of people as domestic spies and informants in an effort to suppress internal dissent through constant monitoring of the general public. Not only was this effort extremely expensive in terms of the human and monetary capital it required, but it also proved remarkably ineffective. Groups like the East German Stasi and the Romanian Securitate were unable to suppress the popular uprisings that undermined communist one-party rule in most of those countries in the late 1980s.

Technology has now made it much easier to track and monitor people. Police cars and roadways are equipped with cameras that can photograph the license plate of every passing car or truck and record it in a database; while allowing police to recover stolen vehicles and catch fleeing suspects, this data can also be used to track the movements of law-abiding citizens. But law enforcement officials don’t even have to go to this much work; millions of car and truck drivers pay tolls electronically without stopping at toll booths thanks to transponders attached to their vehicles, which can be read by scanners well away from any toll road or bridge to monitor traffic flow or any other purpose (Figure). The pervasive use of GPS (Global Positioning System) raises similar issues.

A photo of an E-Z Pass attached to the inside of a car windshield.
One form of technology that has made it easier to potentially monitor people’s movements is electronic toll collection, such as the E-ZPass system in the Midwest and Northeast, FasTrak in California, and I-Pass in Illinois. (credit: modification of work by Kerry Ceszyk)

Even pedestrians and cyclists are relatively easy to track today. Cameras pointed at sidewalks and roadways can employ facial recognition software to identify people as they walk or bike around a city. Many people carry smartphones that constantly report their location to the nearest cell phone tower and broadcast a beacon signal to nearby wireless hotspots and Bluetooth devices. Police can set up a small device called a Stingray that identifies and tracks all cell phones that attempt to connect to it within a radius of several thousand feet. With the right software, law enforcement and criminals can remotely activate a phone’s microphone and camera, effectively planting a bug in someone’s pocket without the person even knowing it.

These aren’t just gimmicks in a bad science fiction movie; businesses and governments have openly admitted they are using these methods. Research shows that even metadata—information about the messages we send and the calls we make and receive, such as time, location, sender, and recipient but excluding their content—can tell governments and businesses a lot about what someone is doing. Even when this information is collected in an anonymous way, it is often still possible to trace it back to specific individuals, since people travel and communicate in largely predictable patterns.

The next frontier of privacy issues may well be the increased use of drones, small preprogrammed or remotely piloted aircraft. Drones can fly virtually undetected and monitor events from overhead. They can peek into backyards surrounded by fences, and using infrared cameras they can monitor activity inside houses and other buildings. The Fourth Amendment was written in an era when finding out what was going on in someone’s home meant either going inside or peeking through a window; applying its protections today, when seeing into someone’s house can be as easy as looking at a computer screen miles away, is no longer simple.

In the United States, many advocates of civil liberties are concerned that laws such as the USA PATRIOT Act (i.e., Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act), passed weeks after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, have given the federal government too much power by making it easy for officials to seek and obtain search warrants or, in some cases, to bypass warrant requirements altogether. Critics have argued that the Patriot Act has largely been used to prosecute ordinary criminals, in particular drug dealers, rather than terrorists as intended. Most European countries, at least on paper, have opted for laws that protect against such government surveillance, perhaps mindful of past experience with communist and fascist regimes. European countries also tend to have stricter laws limiting the collection, retention, and use of private data by companies, which makes it harder for governments to obtain and use that data. Most recently, the battle between Apple Inc. and the National Security Agency (NSA) over whether Apple should allow the government access to key information that is encrypted has made the discussion of this tradeoff salient once again.

Link to learning graphic

Several groups lobby the government, such as The Electronic Frontier Foundation and The Electronic Privacy Information Center, on issues related to privacy in the information age, particularly on the Internet.

All this is not to say that technological surveillance tools do not have value or are inherently bad. They can be used for many purposes that would benefit society and, perhaps, even enhance our freedoms. Spending less time stuck in traffic because we know there’s been an accident—detected automatically because the cell phones that normally whiz by at the speed limit are now crawling along—gives us time to spend on more valuable activities. Capturing criminals and terrorists by recognizing them or their vehicles before they can continue their agendas will protect the life, liberty, and property of the public at large. At the same time, however, the emergence of these technologies means calls for vigilance and limits on what businesses and governments can do with the information they collect and the length of time they may retain it. We might also be concerned about how this technology could be used by more oppressive regimes. If the technological resources that are at the disposal of today’s governments had been available to the East Germany Stasi and the Romanian Securitate, would those repressive regimes have fallen? How much privacy and freedom should citizens sacrifice in order to feel safe?