The Breakfast Table

You’ve Got Mail


After receiving your warning, I just had to use the “You’ve Got Mail” phrase right away, while we still have the right.

I too am deep into communication issues at the end of the day today. I’m enjoying the to-ing and fro-ing on censorship and privacy issues in today’s Sun-Times. In “Hacktivists besiege China,” Maggie Farley of the LA Times reports that hacktivists are penetrating China’s Great Fire Wall, an Internet barrier that “stops Chinese citizens from seeing online news and opinions that differ from the government’s political line.” Hacktivists, such as members of Cult of the Dead Cow, claim they are protesting the censorship by defacing Web sites and exchanging information with political activists. The tone of the article is celebrational, and as I read it, I cheered right along for freedom of expression.

But then I came to another piece, “California restrains paparazzi,” also celebratory in tone, about a new California law inspired by Princess Di’s death which prohibits photographers from putting subjects “‘in physical jeopardy.’” The law also disallows photographing or recording by other means anyone engaged in “‘personal or family activity in circumstances where they had a reasonable expectation of privacy.” Oddly enough, I’m pleased with this news too.

As a writer, I’ve invaded my own privacy gleefully: my husband and I published some of our courtship e-mails last June in Chicago magazine, for example. And with the subjects’ permissions, I’ve done all kinds of interviews. But I’ve never adhered to the arrogant credo that because I’m a writer I’ve the right to write anything about anyone, no matter the consequences. On the contrary, I’m all for personal boundaries, and I like the idea of public freedom of expression and privacy rights coexisting.

To close on a psychological note, when I hear writers or photographers claim the right to invade the privacy of those near them, willy nilly, I imagine that they themselves come from invasive families, have never escaped from that behavior, and therefore feel powerful in acting invasively themselves. It’s a blanket theory, I admit–I can’t say it’s true in every case, although it’s definitely true in some. I can say, though, that I feel good knowing that at least in California, people have the legal right to say no to privacy invasion.