Invasion of Privacy

Invasion of privacy is a legal concept dealing with intrusion into an individual’s private life. It is a tort that allows the person whose privacy was invaded to file a lawsuit against the person intruding upon his or her privacy. Laws governing the right to privacy do not treat all people the same, however, as public figures, such as politicians, are commonly not afforded the same rights of privacy as laypeople. To explore this concept, consider the following invasion of privacy definition.

Definition of Invasion of Privacy

  1. noun. An intrusion on the right to be left alone, or the right to be free from publicity.

Origin     1885-1890 English

invasion of privacy

What is Invasion of Privacy

Invasion of privacy occurs when a person or entity intrudes upon the personal life of another person without just cause. Many actions may be considered invasion of privacy, including workplace monitoring, data collection, and other methods of obtaining private information. The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a decision stating that there is a limited constitutional right to privacy. This right to privacy involves matters such as family relationships, child rearing, education, and marriage. However, information held by third parties is not protected in most instances.

Types of Invasion of Privacy

Privacy laws require the reasonable expectation of privacy to determine whether the violated person has the legal right to privacy. Reasonable expectation means that a person must unreasonably and seriously comprise the interests of another person in order for them to be held liable for their actions.

To successfully bring a legal claim for invasion of privacy, the victim must show that they had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

For example:

Rob and Marla rent a duplex. They have lived there a month when they learn that their landlord had installed video cameras in their bedroom to video tape their activities. The couple has a reasonable expectation of privacy within their own home, and so the landlord, even though he owns the property, has invaded Rob and Marla’s privacy. Not only do Rob and Marla have the right to sue the landlord in civil court, but he may be subject to criminal charges.

There are four main types of invasion of privacy, all of which can lead to a civil lawsuit. These include (1) intrusion of solitude, (2) appropriation of name or likeness, (3) public disclosure of private facts, and (4) false light.

Intrusion of Solitude

Intrusion of solitude occurs when an individual intrudes upon another person’s private affairs in a physical manner. An example of intrusion of solitude is intercepting phone calls or peeping on another person. Acts that may amount to intrusion of solitude may include:

  • intercepting phone calls
  • peeping
  • taking photographs without the victim’s knowledge or consent
  • video recording the victim in his or her home without consent or knowledge

For example:

John watches women undressing in their homes at night by climbing trees and using binoculars. One such woman discovered John peeping on her, and was very distraught. The woman may file a civil lawsuit against John for invasion of privacy, and request damages for emotional distress.

Appropriation of Name or Likeness

Appropriation of name or likeness occurs when a person or entity uses another person’s name or likeness (photograph or video) without his permission. Most states have laws prohibiting the use of a person’s name or likeness for commercial gain or profit without that person’s consent. Appropriation of name or likeness is often seen when a business uses the name or photo of a celebrity, without his consent, in advertising their product or service.

For example:

An advertising company contacts an All-Star basketball player and asks him if they can use his voice to record a radio commercial. The player refuses, so the company hires a person that sounds like him to make the commercial and encourages the public, through the use of images in the ads, to believe the athlete is actually endorsing their client’s product.

Public Disclosure of Private Facts

Public disclosure of private facts refers to the dissemination of personal information that is not of public concern or interest, and that is not part of public proceedings or records, and which would offend any reasonable person if published or widely disseminated.

For example:

When Mary is having a baby, she consents to the hospital taping the birth for educational purposes only. Later, the hospital releases the video to another party, and it is shown in a commercial setting where the public could view it. This is an invasion of privacy, as Mary did not consent to making the birth public available.

False Light

The legal doctrine of false light addresses people’s right to not have false or misleading information, which puts them in a false light, made public. In other words, it deals with the invasion of a person’s privacy by disseminating false or misleading information, rather than the gathering of information through invasion of privacy.

If such published information is actually false, the victim may be able to bring a suit for libel or slander. If, however, the published information is not technically false, but is misleading in such a way as to paint the victim in a false light, the victim may still be able to sue under the tort of false light. To successfully bring a claim under false light, certain elements must be proven in court:

  1. The information about the victim was published or made public
  2. The publication of information was made intentionally, and with malice
  3. The perpetrator acted with reckless disregard for the false nature of the information published
  4. The published information puts the victim in a false or misleading light
  5. The information would be offensive or embarrassing to any reasonable person

For example:

Walter leaves his position on the City Council to care for his wife, who has serious health problems. The small town’s local newspaper prints a story about Walter’s resignation, alluding to “anonymous sources” reporting Walter was a little too friendly with the administrative assistants and other women at the office. This led to talk about whether Walter had an affair. Walter, who is certainly friendly with everyone at the office, never had an affair, and is terribly embarrassed and indignant over the incident, and the damage to his reputation.

Because the newspaper disclosed information that painted Walter in a false light, he may choose to file a civil lawsuit under the tort of false light. In this case, the misleading information was published in the town newspaper, intentionally, with reckless disregard for the falsity of the information, in exchange for higher readership. Information leading the public to believe an affair occurred would be embarrassing or offensive to any reasonable person.

The Constitution and the Right to Privacy

While the Constitution does not address the word privacy directly, it does hit upon the government’s intrusion into citizens’ right to privacy. In general, individual issues regarding a right to privacy are addressed in each state’s laws, and in some cases, left up to the discretion of the court. Many people argue that Constitutional allusions to a right to privacy include:

  • First Amendment addresses the right to assemble freely.
  • Fourth Amendment addresses people’s right to be secure in their homes, and to be protected from unreasonable searches.
  • Ninth Amendment acknowledges that there are rights not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, which citizens nevertheless retain.

Right to Privacy in the Workplace

While most people think they have a right to privacy at all times, the fact is that this right does not extend into the private, non-governmental, workplace. Some states have enacted laws ensuring privacy in certain locations within a workplace, such as a prohibition against placing surveillance cameras in the restrooms, the law is generally vague, and courts tend to give a great deal of leeway to employers’ justifications for searches.

When it comes to workplace searches, there are rules that generally apply when a court is determining whether or not the search is legal. For example, if the employer has a written policy stating that random searches of desks or lockers will be performed, it would be difficult for an employee to convince the court that he had an expectation of privacy. An employer who, without a prior search policy, suddenly searches an employee’s desk, locker, or personal items, may find the court less sympathetic to this workplace invasion of privacy, unless the employer can provide a compelling reason it suspected the employee of wrongdoing.

Regarding phone calls in the workplace, most employers are not allowed to monitor or record employees’ private calls, as they have an expectation of privacy in phone conversations. If, however, the employer has a policy prohibiting private phone calls while employees are on duty, an employee may still be terminated for breaking the rules, if not for the content of their phone conversations.

Invasion of Privacy Laws

Invasion of privacy laws in the U.S. are those which attempt to protect people’s “right to be let alone,” and give individuals whose privacy has been intruded upon the right to sue the intruder in civil court. Invasion of privacy laws do not, however, apply in many situations in which a person’s activities may be of public interest, or to newsworthy events.

Invasion of privacy laws vary by state, with each jurisdiction specifying what rights to privacy individuals are afforded. For instance, privacy laws in the state of Washington specifically state that a person’s text messages are protected from search without a warrant.

Is Invasion of Privacy a Crime

The simple act of invading someone’s privacy is not a criminal offense, though certain methods of such an invasion may be considered criminal. In most cases, invasion of privacy is considered a civil rights violation, and is therefore addressed in civil court proceedings. In a civil lawsuit for invasion of privacy, a victim may seek a monetary award to be paid by the perpetrator.

In some cases, a perpetrator may be subject to both criminal charges and civil sanctions. This might occur when a perpetrator breaks the law in his quest to gain or publish private information about someone else.

For example:

Amber’s ex-husband, Mark, is obsessed with all aspects of her life, and apparently will stop at nothing in his quest to get back at her. Mark follows Amber to work, and as she goes out with her friends, frequently snapping photos of her without her knowledge or consent. Mark tapes Amber’s phone conversations, again without her consent, then publishes both the photos and information gleaned from the phone conversations to social media accounts online.

In such a case, Amber may sue Mark in civil court for invasion of privacy, and possibly other civil torts. In addition, Amber may be able to get a restraining order against her ex-husband, and Mark may be prosecuted for criminal trespassing, stalking, and a host of other violations of the law.

Invasion of Privacy Causes Suicide

In October 2010, Tyler Clementi, an 18-year old Rutgers University student committed suicide. He did so after his roommate set up a video camera in their room in order to record sexual encounters between Clementi and his gay partner. Dhaurn Ravi then shared the videos via live stream using Twitter allowing other people to join in on the viewing session. After discovering the videos, Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge, killing himself.

In 2012, Ravi’s trial began and prosecutors argued that his actions crossed the boundaries of human privacy, and that Clementi’s suicide was no accident, but was prompted. In addition to criminal charges for invasion of privacy, Ravi was charged with hindering apprehension, tampering with evidence, and two counts of bias intimidation, which is a hate crime.

Ravi’s lawyers argued that he did not intentionally out Clementi’s sexual orientation, and that he had apologized to Clementi immediately after releasing the videos. They also denied that Ravi intimidated Clementi.

On May 21, 2012, the verdict was returned. Ravi was found guilty of invasion of privacy, and bias intimidation, and sentenced to 30 days in jail, followed by three years probation. Additionally, Ravi was ordered to perform 300 hours of community service, and to pay a $10,000 fine.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil LawsuitA lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Criminal Charges – A formal accusation by a prosecuting authority that an individual has committed a crime.
  • DamagesA monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Malice – The intention to do evil, inflict injury, or cause suffering of another.
  • Monetary DamagesMoney ordered by the court to be paid to an individual or entity as compensation for injury or loss caused by the wrongful conduct of another party.
  • Victim A person who is cheated or deceived by the dishonest of another.