My recent post on the pastor who scrawled on her meal receipt an ungracious note to the server in an Applebee’s restaurant resulted in an interesting discussion in the comments on whether the server was justified in putting a photo of the receipt on the web with the name of the customer visible but other information (the name of the restaurant, the date, and the credit card number) omitted.
This raises an interesting issue of when we have a right to expect that the things we say and do are to be kept private. For the moment let us leave aside whether the Applebee’s management was justified in firing the server and focus on whether the server violated a reasonable expectation of privacy on the part of the customer. We should also ignore for the purposes of this discussion the fact that we have no secrets from the government, which routinely collects and stores all our communications. What I want to focus on is the question of reasonable expectations of privacy in everyday life.
Apart from private communications via telephone where there are laws that govern when they can be recorded, I think we can all agree that public figures have no expectation of privacy for whatever they may say or do in public venues. There also seems to be a consensus that public figures who speak at private occasions have no expectations of privacy either, unless they explicitly request right up front that their comments be kept confidential or off the record and are confident that those conditions will be followed or enforced. A public figure who addresses a large gathering of people whom he does not know or are not bound by professional ethics to not reveal the remarks, would be a fool to think that his or her plea for confidentiality will be honored.
When Mitt Romney infamously spoke disparagingly of the 47% at a private fundraiser that was closed to the press, there was no outrage that his remarks had been secretly recorded and released. Instead the consensus seemed to be that he was stupid not to have realized that this could happen. The same with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s casual remark to a fellow guest at a private party, which was overheard by a journalist who reported it.
But what about private individuals? Here the issue seems to hinge on whether the remarks were made in the private sphere or the public sphere. If I, a private figure, make a comment at an event that is public or semi-public where there are people I do not know, then I don’t think I can expect that it be kept private. But if I tell a friend something privately, even if I don’t explicitly tell him or her that it should be kept confidential, or if someone visits my home and happens to glance at some of my documents or other items, I think I can be justifiably aggrieved if he or she reveals it to the world without my permission. It all seems to hinge on whether one is in the private sphere or the public sphere. At the extremes the distinction seems pretty clear cut but there is a grey area in between.
So now the question boils down to whether the pastor thought she was acting in the private or public sphere and whether she had a reasonable expectation of privacy. I am inclined to the view that in this case she did not. When one writes a note to a stranger and hands it over to them, then one cannot complain if the contents of that note become public. As I said, that is a different question from whether the restaurant had just cause to fire the server for either violating company policy (and there are mixed views on that) or creating unwelcome publicity for them.
Another case that came to light recently took place in the classroom where a high school psychology teacher and head football coach went on a rant about Michelle Obama and gays. A student recorded the outburst and sent the link to the audio to the district’s superintendent and it has now become public, along with the teacher’s name and school. (It surprises me that people still don’t appreciate the ubiquity of recording devices and are not more circumspect about what they say and to whom.)
The teacher now says that he “misspoke” and that “I have no hatred toward anyone or any group. People that know my heart, they know that.” Ah yes, that well-known barrier between heart and mouth that people often stumble over. You can listen to the audio and judge for yourself.
In this case, did the teacher have a reasonable expectation of privacy that has been violated? I don’t think so. Although I see the classroom as belonging to the private sphere, I adopted the habit long before such recordings became possible that I would not say anything in the classroom, or indeed any venue, that I would not be willing to say publicly, except in obviously confidential situations. Though I personally would protect the confidentiality of anything that a student says in the classroom, we do not adopt a formal policy on this and if a student happened to reveal something that a fellow student or I say in class, I think there would be no grounds for complaint.
It may be that we have an exaggerated sense of the amount of privacy that we are entitled to because most of the time nobody cares what we say and don’t bother to repeat it to others. The growing realization of the ubiquity of recording devices may change that.