Privacy and Harassment

“Privacy” is a portmanteau term that contains within it many different interests. I have discussed one right, that to private information, and my doubts about it. Another is the right to be free from harassment. This was introduced in the United Kingdom by the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. There are at least two good reasons why this legislation does not fall foul of the objections to the right to private information that I have given.

 

First, being harassed by another can inhibit us from leading our lives as we would choose. If I pick up a telephone call and am subject to ‘heavy breathing’ at the other end, I may find this distressing and find myself reluctant to answer the phone. If a stalker is found outside my house staring at me every day, I may be reluctant to leave my home. This kind of behaviour by another if repeated can inhibit my freedom to live my life. The reason that the legislation requires the defendant to have pursued a ‘course of conduct’. is that a one off action by another, being sworn at for example, does not have this effect upon us. It is the repeated conduct which is designed to inhibit the behaviour of another that is the gist of the wrong.

 

Second the Act has democratic legitimacy. We may criticise it for being somewhat open textured (‘harassment’ is not expressly defined) but it is the product of our Parliamentary process. It is not the product of the judiciary creating a new right overtime, without apparent consideration of why they were doing so.

 

The right to private information about ourselves has neither of these features. That the conduct sought to be restrained is apparently valueless (as is publication of a celebrity’s sex life) does not provide a good reason for the state to exercise its power to stop it.

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