Friday, October 2, 2015

Laws of Image

I'm very happy to have the opportunity to share my work on the Legal History Blog this month. I was invited to blog because of the recent publication of my book, Laws of Image: Privacy and Publicity in America (Stanford University Press, 2015). The book offers a cultural and legal history of privacy and libel law in the U.S. from the late 19th century to the present, and it reframes those areas of law by linking them to what I describe as Americans' image consciousness: our concern with our looks, public personas, and the impressions that we make. In the book, I describe libel and privacy law as "laws of public image": laws that protect our ability to control and defend our public images, and to feel good about our images and public presentation of self. In my posts this month, I'll share some highlights from the book.

The book starts with these anecdotes:

In 2013, a woman found that her daughter's picture had been used in an ad for a local ice cream store, without the daughter's or the mother's consent. Her daughter had simply "liked" the ice cream store on Facebook. The woman was outraged and embarrassed.

In 1948, the Saturday Evening Post ran a critique of cabdrivers in Washington, D.C. that accused them of cheating their customers. A photograph appeared with the article that depicted a woman cabdriver, Muriel Peay, talking to the article's author on the street. The caption didn't name her, and the article didn't refer to her. Although the woman had consented to be photographed, she didn't know that the picture would be used in an article on cheating cabbies.

Angry and humiliated, these people could have done any number of things. One thing they did was to initiate lawsuits.

In the past hundred years, Americans have turned increasingly to the law to help them defend and control their public images. The twentieth century saw the creation of a "law of public image," and the phenomenon of "personal image litigation."

Under these laws of image, you can sue if you've been depicted in an embarrassing manner, even if no one thinks less of you for it. If a newspaper or website publishes your picture in a way you find offensive, you can, under circumstances, receive damages for your sense of affront -- for the outrage that someone has taken liberties with your image and interfered with the way you want to be known to the world.

Why does the law in the United States acknowledge rights to one's image? As I'll explain in forthcoming posts, the development of image law is part of a broader story of how Americans became fascinated, even obsessed with manipulating, perfecting, and reflecting on their own personal images.