The right of privacy is a relatively new concept in American law. Spurred largely by legal theorists and scholars, the idea of legal remedies for use and misuse of personal information began to be recognized in the early twentieth century. In 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a notion of privacy based on individual liberty from government interference was rooted in several provisions of the U.S. Constitution.
American law now generally recognizes four tort actions for privacy—appropriation, intrusion, public disclosure of private facts, and false light—although the states vary in which of these claims they recognize. The defenses to these claims vary somewhat, but consent and the lack of a reasonable expectation of privacy is a defense against all these claims. Newsworthiness is also a valid defense, but its effectiveness varies because of the different nature of the four torts.
Journalists must often weigh individuals’ privacy against the public’s right and interest in knowing about newsworthy subjects. This has gotten more complex in the digital age. Traditionally, government surveillance and collection of information about citizens was a primary consideration. While this issue remains important, especially in a post-9/11 world, there is now also concern about private actors who collect and maintain all sorts of personal data about every individual American.