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Surveillance and Identity Performance: Some Thoughts Inspired by Martin Luther King

26 Pages Posted: 25 Apr 2009  

Frank Rudy Cooper

Suffolk University Law School

Date Written: April 23, 2009


This essay applies Judith Butler's theory of identity performance - the idea that we create our identities by acting in ways designed to leave a particular impression - to the Fourth Amendment. As a jumping off point for that analysis, it details the FBI's extensive surveillance of Martin Luther King, JR. That surveillance may have altered King's behavior. It thus conflicted with a bedrock principle of our government, the idea that people ought to be able to self-actualize by behaving as they see fit.

The essay suggests that our current Fourth Amendment jurisprudence fails to adequately curtail surveillance because it improperly defines the threshold issue of when the government's use of new surveillance technology constitutes a search. It thus critically reviews the Olmstead protected areas model, the Katz protected interests model, and the Kyllo hybrid model of the Fourth Amendment.

Ultimately, the essay argues that Butler's theories help us think about the appropriate model. Butler's basic idea is that masculine or feminine actions do not express an essential self. Instead, we take our cues from cultural norms for how people who are masculine or feminine should act. That process is intersubjective, since the behaviors of others influence how our own identity will be perceived. Since performance constitutes identity, safeguarding the ability of individuals to behave as they see fit is crucial to allowing the possibility of self actualization. As the FBI surveillance of King demonstrates, surveillance can prevent people from performing as they see fit. The essay concludes that we should adopt a Fourth Amendment model that assures that new surveillance technology comes under Fourth Amendment scrutiny.

Suggested Citation

Cooper, Frank Rudy, Surveillance and Identity Performance: Some Thoughts Inspired by Martin Luther King (April 23, 2009). New York University Review of Law & Social Change, Vol. 32, p. 517, 2008; Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 09-24. Available at SSRN:

Frank Rudy Cooper (Contact Author)

Suffolk University Law School ( email )

120 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02108-4977
United States

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