Soceity Changes, but does the Law?

Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis once wrote in the Harvard Law Review of 1890, that, “ the common law, in its eternal youth, grows to meet the new demands of society.”

They were asserting that when changes occur within our economical, political, and social structures, the law, in its nature, and with justice to democracy, can change through a public response.

Privacy, however, has been a convoluted riddle within the justice system. Especially when it comes to privacy of the citizen.

In the book, Freedom for The Thought We Hate, I read about the case, Time Inc. v. Hill.

The story of the Mr. and Mrs. Hill is a troubling one. They were held hostage in their home by three escaped convicts in the 1950’s.

Their story was sensationalized in a broadway adaption, later covered in a feature by Time inc. The substance of the feature contained photos of the Broadway actors in the original home of the Hills, causing a resurfacing of trauma for the family.

The tragedy of this case is that, under the past decision of New York v. Sullivan, “public officials (which became the status of the Hills post – hostage) could not recover damages for false and damaging reports unless the falsities were deliberate or reckless (66).”

Due to the infliction of lasting emotional injury, Mrs. Hill took her life.

New York Times v, Sullivan was a landmark case in the persistent debate of free speech. However, it fundamentally established a model for how, generally,  public officials are considered in the judgment of the law.

Mr. and Mrs. Hill fit the qualifications for “public official” but in an entirely unorthodox sense of the term. I was not because they entered the public eye, because the public was thrust upon them in the absurdity of the case.

The law does not consider absurdities. One has to ask, can it? Also, do these unique cases set precedent for the changes in social, economical and political changes Warren and Brandeis mentioned?

Something else to consider is the age of mass information and internet privacy. In a John Oliver episode, the internet is situated within a greater discussion of privacy. In one segment of his report, he informs the audience about the inadequate laws surrounding online harassment, especially for women.

The women featured in the episode recalled horrific online attacks towards their agency, bodies, and spaces.

However, despite the rapid technological changes, the justice system has been slow to act.

The women in the John Oliver episode were met with incompetent action of law enforcement and insensitive justice practice.

Even though the trauma of online harassment is real, alongside the high potential of defamation, it is not taken as seriously as it should. In regards to the Hills case, the toll of a life was because of a weak perspective on the dangers of emotional injury. 

Warren and Brandeis cautioned against the right “to be let alone.” A right that meant to preserve  the citizen’s privacy from unnecessary press scrutiny, now, where has that standard gone?

The Hills case set an example to how emotional damage and violation of privacy can  illustration extreme outcomes on the offended party. The internet as an apparatus of unforgiving memory, can be detrimental to one’s right to be let alone

What kind of changes will incite law reform that is sympathetic to the current challenges of the citizen? I just don’t know. 

One thought on “Soceity Changes, but does the Law?

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  1. Yes, the Hill case is troubling in its implications. To clarify, however, the Hill were not public officials in the eye of the Court, but rather public figures. This category is a broad one, encompassing both celebrities who seek out attention and private citizens who by virtue of circumstance become the subject of public interest. That the courts have consistently been unwilling to parse the differences within this category is indeed troubling. On one hand, we should be grateful that the Supreme Court has taken seriously the importance of the press and has recognized the dangers inherent in subjecting the press to endless lawsuits. On the other hand, it seems the Court has not taken seriously the importance of privacy in the lives of citizens and the importance of the private sphere in a healthy society.


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