Louis Brandeis and the Other Privacy Story

The conventional wisdom is that Louis Brandeis had a singular conception of privacy, which he featured in The Right to Privacy and reiterated in his dissent in Olmstead v. United StatesThe Right to Privacy argued for a privacy tort that would protect individuals’ ability to develop their “inviolate personalities” free from unwanted disclosures by the press and unwanted incursions into the “domestic” circle.  It acknowledged that privacy may have to give way to the media’s coverage of public issues.  In that way, Brandeis and his co-author and law partner Samuel Warren saw privacy and free speech as clashing interests.

In an important new article entitled The Puzzle of Brandeis, Privacy, and Speech (forthcoming Vanderbilt Law Review), Neil Richards explores the often overlooked story of Brandeis’s other view of privacy — intellectual privacy as crucial to free speech.  Richards contends that Brandeis, over time, narrowed the tort privacy interests worth protecting with his vigorous commitment to transparency where the public and government needed facts to make informed decisions.  As this view of privacy receded, Brandeis developed another one, which saw privacy as crucial to free speech.  Privacy from the government would, in certain circumstances, allow people to experiment with ideas and become engaged democratic citizens.  Richards uses this history to make the normative case for protecting “intellectual privacy” in an era when so much of our exploration of ideas occurs over digital networks with persistent memories.   I echo Lawrence Solum’s recommendation of this piece.  It is a must read.

Here is the abstract:

Most courts and scholarship assume that privacy and free speech are always in conflict, even though each of these traditions can be traced back to writings by Louis D. Brandeis – his 1890 Harvard Law Review article “The Right to Privacy” and his 1927 concurrence in Whitney v. California. How can modern notions of privacy and speech be so fundamentally opposed if Brandeis played a major role in crafting both? And how, if at all, did Brandeis recognize or address these tensions? These questions have been neglected by scholars of First Amendment law, privacy, and Brandeis. In this paper, I argue that the puzzle of Brandeis’s views on privacy and speech can be resolved in a surprising and useful way.

My basic claim is that Brandeis came to largely abandon the tort theory of privacy he expounded in “The Right to Privacy.” As a young lawyer, Brandeis conceived of privacy as a tort action protecting emotional injury from newspaper stories that revealed private facts. But Brandeis’s ideas evolved over his life. He soon came to believe strongly in a contrary idea he called “the duty of publicity.” This is the notion that disclosure of most kinds of fraud and wrongdoing are in the public interest; that as he famously put it, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” When Brandeis came to think through First Amendment issues after the First World War, tort privacy could no longer consistently fit into his influential theories of civil liberty.

But while Brandeis changed his mind about tort privacy, what he replaced it with is even more interesting. In his Olmstead dissent and free speech writings, Brandeis identified a second conception of privacy that I call “intellectual privacy.” Brandeis reminds us that the generation of new ideas requires a certain measure of privacy to succeed, and that in this way intellectual privacy and free speech are mutually supportive. I conclude by suggesting some contemporary implications of Brandeis’s rejection of tort privacy and his linkage of intellectual privacy with free speech.

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