Supreme Court Decisions on Liberty
As Justice Hugo Black wrote in the Griswold vs. Connecticut opinion, "'Privacy' is a broad, abstract and ambiguous concept." There is no one sense of privacy which can be extracted from the various Court decisions which have touched upon it. The mere act of labeling something "private" and contrasting it with "public" implies that we are dealing with something which should be removed from government interference.
According to those who emphasize individual autonomy and civil liberties, the existence of a realm of both private property and private conduct should, as much as possible, be left alone by the government. It is this realm which serves to facilitate the moral, personal and intellectual development of each individual, without which a functioning democracy is not possible.
In the cases listed below, you will learn more about how the United States Supreme Court has developed the concept of "privacy" for people in America.
Weems v. United States (1910)
In a case from the Philippines, the Supreme Court finds that the definition of "cruel and unusual punishment" is not limited to what the authors of the Constitution understood under that concept.
Meyer v. Nebraska (1923)
A case ruling that parents may decide for themselves if and when their children may learn a foreign language, based upon a fundamental liberty interest individuals have in the family unit.
Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925)
A case deciding that parents may not be forced to send their children to public rather than private schools, based on the idea that, once again, parents have a fundamental liberty in deciding what happens to their children.
Olmstead v. United States (1928)
The court decides that wire tapping is legal, no matter what the reason or motivation, because it is not expressly prohibited in the Constitution. Justice Brandeis' dissent, however, lays the groundwork for future understandings of privacy.
Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942)
An Oklahoma law providing for the sterilization of people found to be "habitual criminals" is struck down, based on idea that all people have a fundamental right to make their own choices about marriage and procreation.
Tileston v. Ullman (1943) & Poe v. Ullman (1961)
The Court refuses to hear a case on Connecticut laws prohibiting the sale of contraceptives because no one can demonstrate they have been harmed. Harlan's dissent in Poe, however, explains why the case should be reviewed and why fundamental privacy interests are at stake.
Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)
Connecticut's laws against distribution of contraceptives and contraceptive information to married couples are struck down, with the Court relying on earlier precedent involving the rights of people to make decisions about their families and procreation as a legitimate sphere of privacy.
Loving v. Virginia (1967)
Virginia law against interracial marriages is struck down, with the Court once again declaring that marriage is a "fundamental civil right" and that decisions in this arena are not those with which the State can interefere unless they have good cause.
Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972)
The right of people to have and know about contraceptives is expanded to unmarried couples, because the right of people to make such decisions exists due not simply to the nature of the marriage relationship. Instead, it is also due to the fact that it is individuals making these decisions, and as such the government has no business making it for them, regardless of their marital status.
Roe v. Wade (1972)
The landmark decision which established that women have a basic right to have an abortion, this was based in many ways upon the earlier decisions above. Through the above cases, the Supreme Court developed the idea that the Constitution protects a person's to privacy, particularly when it comes to matters involving children and procreation.
Colautti v. Franklin (1979)
Should doctors be required to try to save the life of a possibly viable fetus when performing an abortion? A Pennsylvania law created such a requirement, but the Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional. Find out why...
Williams v. Pryor (2000)
The 11th Circuit Court ruled that the Alabama legislature was within its rights to ban the sale of "sex toys," and that people do not necessarily have any right to buy them.
Pottawatomie v. Earls (2001)
How much latitude does a public school have in restricting a student's rights? Can schools force all students to submit to random drug testing merely as a condition of attendance? Can they force all students who participate in activities like band or soccer to submit to random drug testing?