Chapter five of Anthony Lewis’s book, Freedom for the Thought that we Hate, discussed the way in which privacy intersects with the first amendment. Lewis discussed the story of William Sidis, a child genius whose father thrust him into the spotlight, who later attempted to live a private life, but failed to maintain this lifestyle when years after his fame, The New Yorker ran a piece mocking him. In the 1937 case, Sidis v. F.R. Publishing Corp., Lewis sued The New Yorker, claiming that they had invaded his privacy, obstructed his civil rights, and made libelous claims against him.
The court decided that because of the power that comes with being a public figure, public figures themselves must be willing to sacrifice some of their privacy in order to maintain such lofty and influential positions in our society.
When reading this chapter, I thought a lot about those who don’t actually reap any of the benefits of public life, such as victims of crime and their families.
While some public figures (ex: the Kardashians) are given a huge platform to gain business exposure with their fame, and are pretty much paid to be famous, others suffer from the inconveniences of having their privacy completely invaded, but receive nothing in return.
I also thought about those individuals, who, like Sidis, never consented to being a public figure, whether they were forced into the limelight as a child, or were unwilling players in a newsworthy event. Chapter five of Lewis’s book also dealt with a family who was robbed in their home, and who had their story taken, twisted, and retold. This caused the family severe psychological trauma, and one of the family members ended up committing suicide.
Having privacy is something that most of us take for granted, and to be robbed of that is, in my opinion, absolutely horrific. The decisions the courts made in both of these cases made it acceptable to transform people into characters that the public can use for their own entertainment, which strips them of their complete humanity.
These cases I think are some of the hardest to wrestle with. Having known people who became unwilling characters in a media drama, I am sensitive to the ways in which media coverage can do violence. Still, the Court was trying to balance the privacy rights of individuals against the right of the society to have a free press. I am not sure they came to the right conclusion. However, I am not sure exactly how one could create a legal standard for a different balance.