|William James Sidis (Wiki Commons)|
The American press, it’s been said, is freer to invade personal privacy than perhaps any other in the world. The tort law of privacy, as a shield against unwanted media exposure of private life, is very weak. The usual reason given for the weakness of U.S. privacy law as a bar on the publication of private information is the strong tradition of First Amendment freedom. But “freedom of the press” alone cannot explain why liberty to publish has been interpreted as a right to print truly intimate matters or to thrust people into the spotlight against their will. Especially in our time of heightened concerns with privacy and internet overexposure, we need a better explanation of why the law has struck the balance between media exposure and privacy in the way that it has. One answer can be found in the case of William James Sidis.
The Second Circuit case Sidis v. F.R. Publishing (1940) represents a foundational moment in the development of American privacy law. In Sidis, one of the most famous privacy cases in U.S. history, an eccentric former child genius unsuccessfully sued the New Yorker magazine for invasion of privacy when it published information about his private life. Sidis was the first case to address the conflict between the right to privacy and freedom of the press and to come out on the side of free expression. The Second Circuit held that the loss of Sidis’ privacy was an inevitable sacrifice to be made for the New Yorker’s right to publish freely, and the public’s “right to know.” In its conclusion that the public’s ability to obtain facts of all kinds through the mass media, from serious news to gossip about private affairs, is the prerogative of a democratic people, the Sidis court articulated what have become, in many ways, the ground rules for the modern information society.