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The Puzzle of Brandeis, Privacy, and Speech

Neil M. Richards

Washington University in Saint Louis - School of Law; Yale Information Society Project; Stanford Center for Internet and Society

April 5, 2010

Vanderbilt Law Review, Vol. 63, No. 5, p. 1295, 2010
Washington University in St. Louis Legal Studies Research Paper Series No. 10-04-01

Most courts and scholarship assume that privacy and free speech are always in conflict, even though each of these traditions can be traced back to writings by Louis D. Brandeis – his 1890 Harvard Law Review article “The Right to Privacy” and his 1927 concurrence in Whitney v. California. How can modern notions of privacy and speech be so fundamentally opposed if Brandeis played a major role in crafting both? And how, if at all, did Brandeis recognize or address these tensions? These questions have been neglected by scholars of First Amendment law, privacy, and Brandeis. In this paper, I argue that the puzzle of Brandeis’s views on privacy and speech can be resolved in a surprising and useful way.

My basic claim is that Brandeis came to largely abandon the tort theory of privacy he expounded in “The Right to Privacy.” As a young lawyer, Brandeis conceived of privacy as a tort action protecting emotional injury from newspaper stories that revealed private facts. But Brandeis’s ideas evolved over his life. He soon came to believe strongly in a contrary idea he called “the duty of publicity.” This is the notion that disclosure of most kinds of fraud and wrongdoing are in the public interest; that as he famously put it, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” When Brandeis came to think through First Amendment issues after the First World War, tort privacy could no longer consistently fit into his influential theories of civil liberty.

But while Brandeis changed his mind about tort privacy, what he replaced it with is even more interesting. In his Olmstead dissent and free speech writings, Brandeis identified a second conception of privacy that I call “intellectual privacy.” Brandeis reminds us that the generation of new ideas requires a certain measure of privacy to succeed, and that in this way intellectual privacy and free speech are mutually supportive. I conclude by suggesting some contemporary implications of Brandeis’s rejection of tort privacy and his linkage of intellectual privacy with free speech.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 60

Keywords: Brandeis, Privacy, Free Speech, First Amendment, Legal History, Torts, Intellectual Privacy

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Date posted: April 6, 2010 ; Last revised: July 27, 2011

Suggested Citation

Richards, Neil M., The Puzzle of Brandeis, Privacy, and Speech (April 5, 2010). Vanderbilt Law Review, Vol. 63, No. 5, p. 1295, 2010. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1584831

Contact Information

Neil M. Richards (Contact Author)
Washington University in Saint Louis - School of Law ( email )
Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States
Yale Information Society Project ( email )
New Haven, CT 06520
United States
Stanford Center for Internet and Society ( email )
559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States

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