May 1, 2009 -- What began as law school class exercise in privacy has led an apparently upset Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to criticize a law professor for giving a lesson in how "what is legal may also be quite irresponsible."
Joel Reidenberg, a Fordham University law school professor, assigned a group project to students in his information privacy law course: Find any publicly available information on the notoriously private Scalia and compile it into a "dossier." The class came up with 15 pages of information on the Justice, including his home phone number, his food preferences, his wife's personal e-mail address and photos of his grandchildren, Reidenberg said.
The dossier hasn't been made public and was intended, Reidenberg says, as an exercise to show students the amount of personal information that can be easily gleaned from the Web.
But when he discussed the assignment at an academic conference last week -- and his comments were posted on a popular legal blog -- the assignment took on a life of its own, as things sometimes do on the Internet.
Scalia: Prof. Showed 'Abominably Poor Judgment'
And Scalia is reportedly not pleased. Through the Supreme Court's press office, Scalia declined to comment. In an e-mail to Above the Law, a legal blog, Scalia fired back at Reidenberg:
"It is not a rare phenomenon that what is legal may also be quite irresponsible. That appears in the First Amendment context all the time. What can be said often should not be said. Prof. Reidenberg's exercise is an example of perfectly legal, abominably poor judgment. Since he was not teaching a course in judgment, I presume he felt no responsibility to display any."
Reidenberg said he assigns a similar project each year, using himself as the test subject last year. He said he picked Scalia after the Justice said during a speech earlier this year that he did not believe the law should necessarily protect personal, but easily available, information.
"Every single datum about my life is private? That's silly," Scalia told a conference hosted by the Institute of American and Talmudic Law, according to an Associated Press account of the conference.
Professor: Not Enough Protection for Online Privacy
Reidenberg and some other legal scholars have argued that the law does not do enough to protect individual privacy in an age when volumes of personal information are sometimes easily accessible online.
"Years ago, information might have been available in a public record at a local town hall, but the effort and expense of finding that information effectively gave it privacy protection even though the law might not have," Reidenberg said. "Now, all of those discrete pieces of information become readily accessible and can be aggregated together. In that new context, there are significant privacy concerns associated with the use of that information."
"Each individual fact standing alone may not be problematic. But when you're compiling it together in a different type of format, it becomes quite astonishing."
Scalia said in his speech earlier this year that he was not bothered by the availability of such information. "I don't find that particularly offensive," he said. "I don't find it a secret what I buy, unless it's shameful."
He added there's some information that's private, "but it doesn't include what groceries I buy," according to the AP.
Amitai Etzioni, a professor at George Washington University who has written about privacy and who was at the Fordham conference, said that both Reidenberg and Scalia were right.
"Very little in our lives is private and it's extremely easy to collect a dossier on practically anybody," he said.
"But I think Scalia is right in that a lot of things which are legal are obnoxious," he said. "The basic idea that you do something just because it's legal and view someone's private life just to demonstrate a point, it's obnoxious."