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Sex and Politics

Petraeus affair reminds us how little is private

In a piece for the First Amendment Center, Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, discusses the Petraeus affair and reminds us how little of what we do is private.

National attention to the Petraeus affair is driven by everything from morbid curiosity to concern for national security. But for most of us, issues of privacy and the First Amendment also should take center stage.

As shown by the FBI’s relatively quick trip through the online missives of Gen. David Petraeus’ trysts, not much — if any — of our electronic communication is genuinely “private,” not even for the director of the world’s largest spy agency.

No matter what assumptions, promises or e-mail ploys we might rely on, the one safe approach today is to assume every Internet search, each e-mail, any tweet or Facebook post is at least a discoverable whisper to the world, if not an outright shout.

The implications of that online reality go well beyond personal discomfort or professional disgrace, all the way to First Amendment principles underpinning free speech, free press, petition and the right to associate freely.

Anonymous speech and freely associating with others clearly enhance our ability to seek change in government policies without the chilling impact of “Big Brother” taking names — and, at least potentially, punishing citizens.

We have only to look at the start of the nation to see the value the Founders placed on anonymity. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison used the pen name “Publius” in circulating the 85 essays and articles of the Federalist Papers in 1777 and 1778, discussing what became the principles of the U.S. Constitution.

More than a century later, the core value of individual privacy was declared in an 1890 law review article, “Right to Privacy,” co-written by Louis Brandeis, later a renowned Supreme Court justice. Noting that “recent inventions and business methods” were fueling an unprecedented increase in gossip and that “to satisfy a prurient taste the details of sexual relations are spread broadcast in the columns of daily papers,” the article called for legal protection of the right “to be let alone.”

Read Gene Policinski’s entire piece at the First Amendment Center.

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