Privacy: Sidis v. F-R Publishing Corp.

What I found most interesting in chapter five of Anthony Lewis’ Freedom for the Thought That we Hate, is the initial case, Sidis v. F-R Publishing Corporation. In this case, a young man, who was thrust into the spotlight, without his consent, was exposed later in life. William James Sidis was made famous by his strict and scientific childhood which lead him to graduate Harvard University at sixteen years old. He was conditioned by his psychologist father and was “tormented” throughout most of his young life. This psychological damage followed him far into his thirties and to his death shortly after the trial. In 1937, The New Yorker published a piece detailing his life. The reason for publishing this is apparently simple. The public (according to Jared L. Manley aka James Thurber) had an invested interest in learning the details of a once gifted child. It was a scathing piece hitting home one point- the gifted child was not living a very impressive life for someone who had so much potential.

I would have to argue what the motive was for writing this piece. The public’s attention is not gripped by a case of someone, for so long, no matter how gifted the person. The court ruled for “freedom of comment,” stating that it would not give anyone the right to be free from the “prying of the press.” The court would permit, “limited scrutiny of the ‘private’ life of any person who has achieved, or has had thrust upon him, the questionable and indefinable status of a ‘public figure.’” But was this piece limited? It was a detailed story which outed the man for living a less desirable life. There were not exactly restrictions on what was written about him.

In this case, I wonder if context matters. In addition, I wonder if someone having had fame thrust upon them is a good enough argument to strip them of certain freedoms private citizens have. I understand that in this case, it might have been difficult to look the other way and not enforce the First Amendment. However, as I said above, I find it curious that considering Mr. William Sidis’ situation, context would not matter. The man had no reason to be thrust into the spotlight again. The first time was because his father decided he would be an experiment for people to gawk at. The man’s life was not his own even from his infancy. It was not as if he decided to pursue fame and wealth. He had decided to live an adult life removed from the spotlight which he had no choice but to endure as a child. Should he not have been entitled to live his life outside of fame?

This case leads me to examine celebrities, today. Celebrities who chose to pursue fame. You hear from them constantly that the paparazzi interrupts their day-to-day lives. In these cases, the people have (most of the time) actually chosen that path. And yet when compared to the case of Sidis v. F-R Publishing Corporation, their arguments or protests are not exactly valid. If a man, whom had had fame thrust upon him was not entitled to privacy than those who chose that path, most certainly, should not expect that right.

One thought on “Privacy: Sidis v. F-R Publishing Corp.

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  1. You capture nicely the quandary here and point to the way in which the Court’s framing of the discussion missed the personal context of Sidis’ life as well as the context of the article’s publication. I appreciate your sensitivity to Sidis’ position.


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