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The Right to Privacy

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If anybody in America is entitled to have an attitude about issues of personal privacy, it would seem to be Caroline Kennedy. After all, she’s lived her whole life in the glare of near-cult-like media scrutiny. But if Kennedy harbors any bitterness, it’s hard to detect in this earnest, readable book about privacy and American law. Indeed, the travails of celebrities rate hardly a mention. Rather, it’s the lives of ordinary citizens with which Kennedy and law school pal/coauthor Ellen Alderman concern themselves.

Most of The Right to Privacy (Knopf, $26.95) consists of tales about people whose dignity has been trampled by officious busybodies—cops, school authorities, the media, employers. What they all share, however, is a determination to resist intrusion, albeit with decidedly mixed results. Contrary to popular belief, the word privacy appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution, and the law must often balance competing interests (students versus teachers, cops versus suspects, etc.).

Even so, what surprises here is how many Americans have submitted, sheeplike, to outrageous trespasses before somebody finally filed a lawsuit. Until the early ’80s, for example, Chicago police strip-searched nearly every woman taken into custody, even for offenses like unpaid parking tickets. Similarly, scores of department-store job applicants were once required to take a true-false psychological screening test. Questions included ”I believe in the second coming of Christ” and ”I’ve never indulged in any unusual sex practices.” Finally in 1989, one applicant raised hell.

Ideologically speaking, the authors appear to have aimed at dead center and pretty much hit it. The book’s only persistent bias is in favor of liberty—a value that, at least in the abstract, everybody favors. B+

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