In 1905 the Supreme Court of Georgia became the first state high court to recognize a freestanding “right to privacy” tort in the common law. The landmark case was Pavesich v. New England Life Insurance Co. Must it be a cause for deep jurisprudential concern that the common law right to privacy in wide currency today originated in Pavesich’s explicit judicial interpretation of the requirements of natural law? Must it be an additional worry that the court which originated the common law privacy right asserted that a free white man whose photograph is published without his consent in a city newspaper is like a slave in bondage?
I argue that the jurisprudence of Pavesich need not be troubling. Pavesich’s natural law argument was supplemented by several positive law arguments. The positive law arguments were a strong enough basis for finding a right to privacy in the common law, as indeed Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis had previously argued. The observation that the Pavesich court’s natural law argument ran alongside positivistic arguments suggests that the arresting, high-toned natural law and slavery appeals in Pavesich are inessential rhetorical throwaways. But I maintain that the natural law argument and slavery analogy features of Judge Andrew Jackson Cobb’s opinion extolling the “liberty of privacy” are (1) of critical importance to a full contextual understanding of the decision and (2) illuminate the contemporary case for recognizing invasions of privacy as civil injuries to freedom and self-determination. One can poke holes in the logic of Thomas Aquinas and John Locke as scholars have done for centuries. But one can as easily choose to celebrate the spirit of the natural law tradition. The natural law tradition represents efforts rhetorically, rationally, and intuitively to derive principles of justice and goodness from basic facts about human characteristics, needs, and desires, where otherwise binding sovereign law may fall short.
Allen, Anita L., "Natural Law, Slavery, and the Right to Privacy Tort" (2012). Faculty Scholarship at Penn Law. 444.
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