Most Americans believe in a constitutional right to privacy — but does it really exist? The answer is yes, but it’s not as clear-cut as most people think.
In early 2003, Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania announced his belief that no American has a Constitutional right to privacy, a shocking assertion to hear from a high government official. Because this was inserted as an aside in a more controversial statement, it was mostly overlooked — but not entirely.
Pundits have been weighing in the subject sporadically ever since. The dismaying fact is, Santorum was right — to a certain extent. There’s no specific mention of the word “privacy” anywhere in the U.S. Constitution. But that doesn’t mean that the subject isn’t covered there, and it’s time that myth was busted.
For the People, Not the Government
Just because no Constitutional right to privacy is spelled out explicitly doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The fact is, privacy rights have been taken as a given from the very beginning of the Republic, and rightly so; a democracy like ours couldn’t function properly otherwise.
You see, the Constitution is meant to outline the powers and the rights of the federal government only. It’s not intended as a guideline for what the people are allowed to do. Anything it fails to ban is assumed to be allowed, at least until the document is amended or the subject is otherwise legislated upon.
So this search for an explicit Constitutional right to privacy is groundless. As one observer points out, the Constitution doesn’t spell out our personal rights to eat, sleep, or have children, either. They’re assumed — or to crib a term from another famous document, they’re truths that we, as Americans, hold to be self-evident.
Privacy, Obliquely and Otherwise
That’s not to say that the Constitution, even in its original form, offers no privacy rights. In Article 1, guidelines are set out for the provision of mail service; and because mail was the one long-distance communication method then available, its privacy was considered inviolable on pain of imprisonment. It still is.
But the real Constitutional right to privacy is set out in the Bill of Rights, the first ten Amendments that were added when the founding fathers feared a misunderstanding of the federal government’s limited Constitutional powers. They’re the ones we all learn by heart in grade school — for good reason.
A Collective Right to Privacy, Explicit or Not
The intent of the Bill of Rights was to make it clear that any rights not reserved by the federal government belonged to the people and the individual states, and that the Constitution couldn’t tell you what to do in those cases. Even if those rights are sometimes honored only in the breach, they do exist.
The Bill of Rights explicitly states that the federal government can’t infringe upon your right to keep and bear arms, or enact laws abridging freedom of speech or religion. It also protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure. If that’s not a collective Constitutional right to privacy, what is?