Supreme Court Decisions on Right to Privacy Cases

U.S. Constitution
U.S. Constitution. Sylvia Bissonnette/Photolibrary/Getty

As Justice Hugo Black wrote in the Griswold vs. Connecticut opinion, "'Privacy' is a broad, abstract and ambiguous concept." There is no one sense of privacy which can be extracted from the various Court decisions which have touched upon it. The mere act of labeling something "private" and contrasting it with "public" implies, though, that we are dealing with something which should be removed from government interference.

According to those who emphasize individual autonomy and civil liberties, the existence of a realm of both private property and private conduct should, as much as possible, be left alone by the government. It is this realm which serves to facilitate the moral, personal and intellectual development of each individual, without which a functioning democracy is not possible.

Supreme Court Right to Privacy Cases

In the cases listed below, you will learn more about how the has developed the concept of "privacy" for people in America. Those who declare that there is no "right to privacy" protected by the U.S. Constitution would have to be able to explain in clear language how and why they agree or disagree with the decisions here.

Weems v. United States (1910)

In a case from the Philippines, the Supreme Court finds that the definition of "cruel and unusual punishment" is not limited to what the authors of the Constitution understood that concept to mean.

This lays the groundwork for the idea that constitutional interpretation should not be limited solely to the culture and beliefs of the original authors.

Meyer v. Nebraska (1923)

A case ruling that parents may decide for themselves if and when their children may learn a foreign language, based on a fundamental liberty interest individuals have in the family unit.

Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925)

A case deciding that parents may not be forced to send their children to public rather than private schools, based on the idea that, once again, parents have a fundamental liberty in deciding what happens to their children.

Olmstead v. United States (1928)

The court decides that wiretapping is legal, no matter what the reason or motivation, because it is not expressly prohibited in the Constitution. Justice Brandeis' dissent, however, lays the groundwork for future understandings of privacy - one that conservative opponents of the idea of a "right to privacy" loudly oppose.

Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942)

An Oklahoma law providing for the sterilization of people found to be "habitual criminals" is struck down, based on the idea that all people have a fundamental right to make their choices about marriage and procreation, despite the fact that no such right is explicitly written in the Constitution.

Tileston v. Ullman (1943) & Poe v. Ullman (1961)

The Court refuses to hear a case on Connecticut laws prohibiting the sale of contraceptives because no one can demonstrate they have been harmed. Harlan's dissent, however, explains why the case should be reviewed and why fundamental privacy interests are at stake.

Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)

Connecticut's laws against distribution of contraceptives and contraceptive information to married couples are struck down, with the Court relying on earlier precedent involving the rights of people to make decisions about their families and procreation as a legitimate sphere of privacy which the government does not have limitless authority over.

Loving v. Virginia (1967)

Virginia law against interracial marriages is struck down, with the Court once again declaring that marriage is a "fundamental civil right" and that decisions in this arena are not those with which the State can interfere unless they have good cause.

Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972)

The right of people to have and know about contraceptives is expanded to unmarried couples because the right of people to make such decisions is not exclusively dependent on the nature of the marriage relationship.

Instead, it is also based on the fact that it is individuals making these decisions, and as such the government has no business making it for them, regardless of their marital status.

Roe v. Wade (1972)

The landmark decision which established that women have a basic right to have an abortion, this was based in many ways upon the earlier decisions above. Through the above cases, the Supreme Court developed the idea that the Constitution protects a person's to privacy, particularly when it comes to matters involving children and procreation.

Williams v. Pryor (2000)

The 11th Circuit Court ruled that the Alabama legislature was within its rights to ban the sale of "sex toys," and that people do not necessarily have any right to buy them.