Guest Post by Melanie Lawder, Student Journalist
Do we have a constitutional right to privacy? Technically we don’t and it may surprise many Americans to know this. Though we insinuate a right to privacy through the protections afforded in the Bill of Rights and Supreme Court decisions such as Roe v. Wade, any constitutionalist will attest that no such absolute right legally exists in the eyes of our government.
Therefore, because privacy exists in the gray area of the law, it is hard to distinguish as citizens how much secrecy and reclusiveness we can enjoy. With the documenting our lives on social media sites such as Facebook increasingly becoming the norm, it seems now more than ever that Americans are enjoying less privacy. Nothing’s a mystery – a quick Google search can reveal tons of information about any individual. But just because all this information is out there doesn’t mean that privacy is an obsolete notion. There are still lines that shouldn’t be crossed and content that shouldn’t be published.
The media has a particularly tough time discerning where these lines should be drawn. Time and time again the media has published a story, a picture or a video considered to have encroached too far into somebody’s life or exposed a person’s secrets. In some instances, there will be a backlash and critics will scold media professionals for not displaying sensitivity for the average citizen.
But other times, an act of intrusion on behalf of the media can be justified. If it draws issue to a greater social cause, the invasion of someone’s private life does have its merits.
Take the example of Derek Williams – a 22-year-old Milwaukee native who died of a sickle cell crisis in police custody in July 2011. Williams, who was arrested on the suspicion of robbery, was handcuffed in the back of a Milwaukee Police Department car and began to experience breathing difficulties. After ten minutes of pleading for medical help – which the police ignored – Williams collapsed and died in the backseat. His death was caught on video by the camera installed in the police’s car. A year later it was obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and released on its website.
Though Williams’ family consented to the release of the video, the morbid nature of the video’s content has sparked controversy about whether it invades a dead man’s privacy. Because it details the last horrific minutes of man’s death, there is a valid argument against its publication on news sites. After all, if Williams was your father, would you want to see him die on video? Would you want thousands others to watch it?
But as compelling and gracious as this argument is, Williams’ death calls attention to much larger societal problems – specifically, race relations within the Milwaukee community and MPD’s consistently spotty track record. Probably best known for releasing a victim back in to the hands of serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer in the 1990s, MPD does not have the most sparkling reputation. According to TMJ4, Williams’ death was the third in police custody over the past 30 years. And more recently, a MPD officer pleaded no contest to charges of illegal body cavity and strip searches.
There’s no doubt that police conduct in Milwaukee is suspicious and needs close monitoring. Had the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel decided to just write a story without the accompanying video, Williams’ death would not have gotten the same attention. In this case, a video – though it infringed on a private moment – exposed a corruption that has been plaguing Milwaukee for decades now. Its release is an excellent example of how, in some cases, privacy should be sacrificed to exposed greater injustices.
So is privacy important? Of course it is, but just because a video is labeled as a private moment doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to social injustices that are uncomfortable to watch.