Does Tiger Woods Have a Right to Privacy?

The New York Times, The Opinion Pages

Tiger Woods

Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesTiger Woods and his wife Elin Nordegren at the Presidents Cup golf competition in October.

In the continuing drama over his car accident last week, Tiger Woods released a statement on Wednesday, apologizing to his family and supporters after a magazine article reported that he had carried on multiple affairs.

In his statement, he said:

No matter how intense curiosity about public figures can be, there is an important and deep principle at stake which is the right to some simple, human measure of privacy. I realize there are some who don’t share my view on that. But for me, the virtue of privacy is one that must be protected in matters that are intimate and within one’s own family. Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn’t have to mean public confessions.

But in the age of the Internet, when the media is not just traditional mainstream press or even the tabloids, but bloggers and twitterers, is a claim of privacy even plausible? And is there a difference between a public figure and a well-known figure when it comes to privacy?

The Character Requirement

Anita L. Allen is the deputy dean and the Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and a professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

The public is curious about anyone who does anything unusual, unexpected or improper. When the “anyone” is a famous politician, entertainer or sports hero, our curiosity can get out of hand. It can swell online and off-line markets for information, speculation and commentary.

Media and consumers of media will gladly set aside health care reform or the military surge for the distraction of a few more Tiger bytes. And we can always make ourselves feel better about gossip, prying, hounding by claiming that (or debating whether) large, newsworthy concerns are implicated by this or that immoral or unconventional act.

While fame breeds curiosity, being a public figure or public official does not erase the need for privacy or the moral entitlement to it. Sometimes famous people (former President Bill Clinton, and, in an even more distant place and time, the writer Oscar Wilde) are so desperate for the privacy of their interpersonal relationships that they resort to incredible lies. We cannot blame people for wanting to try, difficult as it’s become, to manage the flow of information about themselves.

No one enjoys intrusion and distortion. Concealing the truth with deception and spilling the truth on Oprah’s compassionate sofa are equally tragic coping devices for celebrities seeking control over their lives.

There is a real question of just what degree of accountability and what kind of accountability public figures like Tiger Woods owe the general public. Woods owes the public full legal accountability for the injurious consequences of the mysterious 2 a.m. car crash: he broke the traffic laws and he committed property torts. But he doesn’t owe the public explanations, justifications, or transparency with respect to his extramarital relationships.

When civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s infidelity and out of wedlock child came to light (remember that?), it was plausible to think that he owed the public—or his public– an explanation. Reverend Jackson held himself out as a Christian moral leader. But there is no character requirement for professional sports, the way there is thought to be for religious leaders and the public officials to whom we entrust our welfare and tax dollars. Tiger Woods is just a golfer, a superb and charming golfer with secrets some of his girlfriends and the new organized and informal media refuse now, to let him keep.

We Are All Public Figures

Kashmir Hill is an associate editor of Above the Law, a legal blog. She writes about privacy issues at “The Not-So Private Parts” on True/Slant.

Tiger Woods has said he has a “right to some simple, human measure of privacy.” But privacy is not a simple concept, and many out there, myself included, were teed off by his request to be spared questions from the public about his accident.

And I do not direct this skepticism about privacy at Woods only. At the legal blog “Above the Law” where I am an editor, we regularly turn unlikely suspects — corporate attorneys and even law school students — into well-known figures. A law firm partner who sends out an ill-advised email will become a notorious public figure by virtue of our writing about him for an audience of hundreds of thousands. Silly emails were not usually an occasion for media attention before the advent of blogs. It is only because there is limitless newsprint on the Internet that such a thing is printed now.

As long as there is curiosity — causing readers to buy stories and Internet surfers to click — the media, in the form of newspapers, blogs and twitterers, are going to “invade privacy” and provide details about the personal lives of well-known figures.

What’s different in the age of the Internet is that it’s much easier to become such a figure. In a California court case earlier this year, a judge ruled that a newspaper had not violated the privacy of a California woman when it published a rant she had written on her MySpace page. The court wrote, “once posted on myspace.com, this article was available to anyone with Internet access. Under these circumstances, no reasonable person would have had an expectation of privacy regarding the published material.”

Do you have a Facebook or MySpace page? If so, you too may find yourself defined as a public figure.

Just Keep Quiet

Diane L. Zimmerman is the Samuel Tilden Professor of Law Emerita at New York University School of Law. She spent 10 years prior to law school as a reporter for Newsweek and The New York Daily News.

A lot of very complex privacy issues are raised by the exchange of private information obtained by use of the Web or from things like medical records. But this is an old-fashioned privacy problem: How much protection can a person have when what he or she wants to keep private happened more or less in public?

And the truth is that even people far less famous than Tiger Woods don’t fare well with claims of privacy in situations like that. The distinctions between public figures, private figures and well-known figures that play such a significant role in defamation is largely irrelevant in this context.

People disseminate information about things they can observe or that are part of the public record, no matter what the medium they choose: blogs or newsprint.

Of course, Woods is right: he doesn’t have to contribute to the frenzy by volunteering information. Truthfully, the best protection for privacy is the willingness of the individual to keep quiet about his personal life.

Privacy Should Be Protected

Daniel J. Solove is a professor of law at George Washington University Law School and the author of “The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet.”

We love to put celebrities in a fishbowl and eagerly await news of their foibles and peccadilloes. But this practice is deeply unfair to them. Despite the fact they chose a career in the limelight, they shouldn’t have to sacrifice their privacy (and the privacy of their spouses, friends and family) in the process.

In response to gossip about marital infidelity, Tiger Woods asked for “the right to some simple, human measure of privacy.” Many members of the media and the public speak as if they are entitled to have him lay bare his deepest secrets, but he shouldn’t be chastised for drawing a line and refusing to talk further about his private life.

Everyone — no matter how famous they might be — deserves at least some domain away from the searing glare of the public eye.

Several women have now come forward claiming they had affairs with Tiger Woods, offering proof in the form of voicemails, text messages and photos. In England, attempts to disclose confidential information can readily be barred by the law there, which strongly protects matters that are considered confidential by the people involved. In the U.S., while the law protects confidentiality in certain relationships, like those with doctors and lawyers, it currently doesn’t go as far as the law in England to cover personal relationships.

The law should provide better protection of confidentiality. The women who are now lining up to reveal Woods’s intimate information and communications (assuming they are telling the truth, and many may not be) will add little of value to public discourse. They are merely attempting to cash in by feeding the public’s hunger for salacious details.

We shouldn’t sanctify morbid curiosity by deeming it legitimate for the public to know Woods’s secrets. Although many are curious about what he has done behind closed doors, society should respect his right to keep his doors shut.

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