MU professors discuss privacy law on Constitution Day

Friday, September 18, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — When the U.S. Founding Fathers signed a document more than 200 years ago that ensured basic human rights for the people of that young nation, a right to privacy was not clearly expressed.

But in the years since, court rulings have shaped and continue to redefine a protection that has become, in a world of increasingly powerful communication and surveillance technologies, essential to protecting peoples’ liberty.

At a panel discussion on Thursday, which was nationally recognized as Constitution Day, two MU professors explained privacy law, but it was not made any simpler.

MU law professor Christina Wells called the issue of privacy laws an “extremely amorphous” concept.

“We can come up with many, many different ideas of what privacy is,” she said. “And very few people in this room, if I were to ask what privacy was, would give me the same definition.”

The right to privacy, as it is understood, was defined in 1965 by then-Supreme Court Justice William Douglas from a “penumbral rights” combined from the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments.   

That came from Douglas’ opinion in the controversial case Griswold v. Connecticut, in which the state of Connecticut attempted to outlaw the use of contraceptives in the state.

This emanation of privacy rights has been further illuminated through decades of government policy adjustments and further jurisprudence.

MU history professor James Rollins said privacy rights are a “relatively new invention” in the U.S.

When these rights were established, the types of privacy concerns facing Americans now would have been completely unfathomable. The Founding Fathers would have never imagined that Americans would one day have the ability to steal a person’s identity electronically or record video tape with a device smaller than a human fingertip.

Rollins said the “massive” amount of personal information held by businesses and government is a “perplexing” modern context for privacy rights. He said there have been a myriad of state and federal laws pertaining to privacy of personal information.

“This number of statutes have placed limits on the power of government and the power of business to release, circulate and sell information such as medical and financial records,” Rollins said.

This year, the Columbia City Council has been faced with questions regarding the protection of its residents' privacy.

In April, the council voted down a measure that would have allowed the installation of surveillance cameras throughout downtown based on privacy concerns.

For that same reason, at the regular council meeting last week, the council raised questions about the Columbia Police Department's plan to purchase an automated license plate reader that can scan up to 3,000 license plates an hour to look for stolen cars, stolen plates or an outstanding warrant on the part of the driver. The time and location of a vehicle, regardless of whether it could be used for an arrest, could be stored for as long as the department sees fit.

The department has not yet received the device, and the duration of the data storage will be determined per a policy decision by the department.

Local issues weren’t addressed at the discussion, but Dan Viets, the president of the Mid-Missouri chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said there are “assaults” on privacy in the city.

Mary Wilkerson, chairwoman of the Special Business District, was in attendance to the discussion, held at The Tiger Hotel. The Special Business District supported the legislation that would have allowed surveillance cameras downtown.

“There’s absolutely a right to personal privacy,” she said. “But I have a very hard time seeing how a public place is included in that.”

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