Friday, June 25, 2004

Privacy rights and public office

This piece on the Weekly Standard's website is funny. It's about the Jack and Jeri Ryan divorce. Jack is running for the Senate as a Republican from Illinois -- which has a tattered Republican organization. Jeri is the buxom and leggy actress who played a teacher on Boston Public after her role as Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager. They have a nine-year old son, for whose benefit they had their divorce papers sealed. The Chicago Trib and a Chicago TV station sued to unseal the divorce records; Jack and Jeri both opposed, but who cares about their privacy when there's some dirty laundry to air out? Thus, hishonor unsealed 26 of the 44 documents (or parts thereof) and the press dug in. It found that Jeri accused Jack of taking her to sex and swingers clubs and wanting her to perform sex acts in public, which she refused. Jack denied all those allegations.

Here's the reason this whole situation is horrendous from a legal standpoint: the press has no right to the documents. Even in the US, with our First Amendment's Free Press Clause, the press' interest in any given subject is determined by the "people's right to know." An ambiguous term that is routinely stretched beyond recognition by the press itself. But basically, the right to know is coextensive only with information that is public. Private information is not within the "right to know".

In determining that the records from the divorce should be sealed in the first instance, the judge signing that sealed-records order determined that the Ryans' interest in their privacy and the protection of their child outweighed the public's right to know the dirty details of their divorce. That was the right call then, it would have been the right call now.

And all this begs a question -- if Jack Ryan's divorce is fair game, is John Kerry's?

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