Privacy, Democracy and Freedom of Expression

Forthcoming in The Social Dimensions of Privacy, eds. Beate Roessler and Dorota Mokrosinska, (Cambridge University Press, 2015)

22 Pages Posted: 31 Oct 2014

See all articles by Annabelle Lever

Annabelle Lever

University of Geneva - Department of Political Science and International Relations

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: October 28, 2014


Must privacy and freedom of expression conflict? To witness recent debates in Britain, you might think so. Anything other than self-regulation by the press is met by howls of anguish from journalists across the political spectrum, to the effect that efforts to protect people’s privacy will threaten press freedom, promote self-censorship and prevent the press from fulfilling its vital function of informing the public and keeping a watchful eye on the activities and antics of the powerful.[Brown, 2009, 13 January] Effective protections for privacy, from such a perspective, inevitably pose a threat to democratic government via the constraints that they place on the press.

Such concerns with privacy must be taken seriously by anyone who cares about democratic government, and the freedom, equality and well-being of individuals. But if it is one thing to say that privacy and freedom of expression cannot always be fully protected, it is another to suppose that protections for the one must always come at the expense of the other. Revising our ideas about privacy and its protection cannot alone reduce the tensions between freedom of expression and personal privacy typical of our societies, necessary though such revision may be. Moreover, this paper can only touch on some aspects of the ways in which we need to rethink our interests in privacy, in order adequately to reflect people’s diverse interests in freedom of expression, and the important role of a free press to democratic government. Nonetheless, I hope to suggest ways of thinking about people’s claims to privacy which can be generalised fairly readily, and can help us to think constructively about the nature, causes and solutions to some important social and political problems, even if, in its nature, philosophical analysis rarely tells us what to do.

More specifically, this paper argues that people are entitled to keep some true facts about themselves to themselves, should they so wish, as a sign of respect for their moral and political status, and in order to protect themselves from being used as a public example in order to educate or to entertain other people. The “outing” - or non-consensual public disclosure - of people’s health records or status, or their sexual behaviour or orientation is usually unjustified, even when its consequences seem to be beneficial. Indeed, the paper claims, the reasons to reject outing, as inconsistent with democratic commitments to freedom and equality, are reasons to insist on the importance of privacy to freedom of expression. While a free press is of the utmost importance to democratic government, it is not identical with the free expression of individuals and, on occasion, the former may have to be constrained in order to protect the latter. [Barendt, 2007, 231]. Hence, the paper concludes, we should distinguish the claims of individuals to publish reports about their lives – even if this necessarily involves revealing the private lives of others – from journalistic claims to publish information about the sex lives of consenting adults. I will start by briefly situating my argument within a democratic approach to privacy, before using the “outing” of Oliver Sipple to examine people’s claims to privacy and their implications for freedom of expression and of the press. I will be assuming that some forms of privacy are legitimate, in order to focus more closely on the question of what information, if any, people may keep to themselves.

Keywords: privacy, democracy, equality, freedom of expression, outing, oliver sipple, kiss and tell, gossip, journalism

Suggested Citation

Lever, Annabelle, Privacy, Democracy and Freedom of Expression (October 28, 2014). Forthcoming in The Social Dimensions of Privacy, eds. Beate Roessler and Dorota Mokrosinska, (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Available at SSRN:

Annabelle Lever (Contact Author)

University of Geneva - Department of Political Science and International Relations ( email )

40 Boulevard du Pont D'Arve
Geneva, Geneve CH 1207

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