Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

What Stephanopoulos could have asked about the Constitution and privacy

January 11, 2012 by Holly Munson


At the most recent GOP debate, ABC host George Stephanopoulos asked the candidates if they believed states have the right to ban contraception. Candidate Mitt Romney called it an "unusual" question. And, as columnist Hugh Hewitt described it, "the nation groaned."

Most people who have weighed in on the question agree: it was sort of out there. As several candidates noted, there are not, in fact, any states seeking to ban contraception. Furthermore, the matter is simply not on voters' minds.

I work at the National Constitution Center, so I'm generally happy when the Constitution finds its way into any conversation. Nevertheless, when I heard Stephanopoulos' question, I cringed.

Sometimes it's hard to convince people that the Constitution is, as former Attorney General Edwin Meese III put it, "more than just a lawyer's document." With comments like Stephanopoulos', it might be easy to think of the Constitution as esoteric, irrelevant, or purely theoretical. The thing is, Stephonopoulos was really close to asking a truly relevant, meaningful question about the Constitution and how it affects our daily lives: the question of how our privacy should be protected on the Internet.

The missed opportunity came when Stephanopoulos mentioned a Supreme Court case that isn't very well known by the average American but is very much a landmark case: Griswold v. Connecticut.

Stephanopoulos rightly noted that Griswold was the case that first interpreted the Constitution as protecting a right to privacy. In the 1965 case, the court ruled against a Connecticut state law that banned contraceptives, arguing that it infringed on the right of privacy, a right the justices said stemmed from the 9th Amendment, the 14th Amendment, and the "emanations" of the Constitution.

I know, I mentioned contraception again. Stay with me here.

Perhaps Stephanopoulous felt that in addressing Griswold, he needed to stick to the original issue of banning contraception. But in fact, Griswold has been cited numerous times in prominent cases, including that landmark case conservatives love to hate, Roe v. Wade.

Sure, Roe v. Wade and its effects are important to a lot of people. But if you want an example of how the Constitution, and the way it's been interpreted by the judicial branch, affects your daily life, look no further than Internet privacy. There are still many questions to face about how individuals can protect their privacy online: Do people have a say in the privacy policy of the social networks they use? Can users prevent a website or search engine from tracking their clicks? Is user privacy even possible on the Internet? If these questions make it to the Supreme Court, you can bet you'll hear about the Griswold case.

With 750 million members, Facebook is the third largest nation in the world. Particularly with its new Timeline rolling out, users and consumer advocates continue to complain that it violates users' privacy. Does it need a Bill of Rights? Author Lori Andrews and several other panel speakers will be discussing just that in an event at the Constitution Center this Thursday, "What Would the Founding Fathers Think of Facebook?". In the meantime, you can learn more about the Constitution and Facebook here.

Let's hope that next time we hear the candidates talk about privacy rights, we can skip the nonexistent contraception debate and focus on the increasingly important issue of Internet privacy. It's an issue that demonstrates the abiding relevance of the Constitution, and it matters every time we click on a search result, send an email, or post a new status update.

Holly Munson is Assistant Editor of Constitution Daily, the blog of the National Constitution Center.

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