Right to Privacy
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Is There a Legally Protected Right to Privacy?
We often say that we have a right to privacy. But where does this right come from? The United States Constitution does not mention the word "privacy."
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution as creating a "zone of privacy" that prevents the government from interfering with personal life decisions, such as childbirth, procreation, marriage, and medical treatment. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution also prevents the government from searching your home without probable cause that you have committed a crime.
But the right to privacy is also the right to keep private information about you private. While the United States Constitution does not expressly guarantee this type of privacy protection, many federal and state laws have been enacted to protect private information.
Federal Privacy Laws
Some federal privacy laws include:
- The Privacy Act: Prevents the federal government from disclosing personal information.
- Fair Credit Reporting Act: Limits access to your personal financial information and enables you to correct information in your credit report.
- Fair Debt Collection Practices Act: Protects consumers against abusive debt collection practices.
- Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA): Protects the confidentiality of your medical records and information.
- Electronic Communications Privacy Act: Extends the limitations on wiretapping from telephones to email, cell phones, and other computer transmissions and restricts access to electronic communications records.
- Gramm-Leach Bliley Act (or Financial Modernization Act): Requires financial institutions to create and disclose privacy policies about the information they collect and how that information is used.
- Children's Online Privacy Protection Act: Enables parents to control information collected about their children (under 13) online.
State Privacy Laws
While federal privacy laws regulate the use of certain types of private information, these laws do not create a general right to privacy. Fortunately, many states not only have targeted privacy laws, similar to the federal laws above, but their state constitutions also specifically create a general constitutional right to privacy.
The constitutional right to privacy limits the disclosure of information about which individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Right of Privacy during Lawsuits
During lawsuits, parties often seek to obtain personal or financial information from the opposing party to use in the case. Litigants may even seek private information from non-parties through the use of the subpoena power, which compels the disclosure of information held by third-party witnesses.
However, the constitutional right of privacy places limits on the disclosure of private information in lawsuits. Courts must balance the litigant’s or the state’s interest in obtaining the information against the party or third party’s interest in keeping the information private.
Even where the interest in disclosure outweighs the individual’s privacy interest, courts often impose limitations on the disclosure. These limitations may permit the redaction of certain information, such as bank account numbers or other identifying information, or they may limit the scope of the disclosure.
Individuals whose rights are impacted may file a motion for a protective order or they may file a motion to seal the court file so the information is not made public.
Where a lawsuit revolves around private information, to avoid the cost of filing motions for protective orders, it is often advisable for the parties to negotiate a stipulated protective order. A stipulated protective order is an agreement between the parties stating how their private information will be managed during a lawsuit. Stipulated protective orders often require parties that receive private information to refrain from disclosing the information to any third party and to destroy it at the conclusion of the case.
How to Protect Your Privacy Rights
Depending on the privacy right that was invaded, you may have a private right of action against the party who invaded your rights. Certain laws, such as the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, also have special enforcement provisions, which require the infringing party to pay your attorney fees if you prevail.
If you are involved in a lawsuit or you believe your privacy rights have been infringed upon, you should contact an experienced attorney to enforce your rights.
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Last Modified: 07-29-2015 12:45 PM PDT
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