The Portland Phoenix

Politics & Other Mistakes: None of our business?

I’m all for a constitutional right to privacy.

Just not for everybody. There are some people we need to keep an eye on.

As with most rights granted by the federal and state constitutions, there are limits on what you’re allowed to do, even in private. Convicted felons aren’t permitted to possess guns, no matter what the Second Amendment says. The right to peacefully assemble? Not if you’re incarcerated. Freedom of speech? Hard to find on liberal college campuses or conservative TV news networks.

And so it is with privacy. There’s a perfectly reasonable law against you going home, locking the doors, closing the blinds, pouring yourself a glass of wine, and settling down in front of your computer to view a little child porn.

It’s possible that former independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, who’s an attorney, could provide some astute legal insight into this exception to the privacy rule if he weren’t otherwise occupied facing charges of possession of child porn.

If Cutler is convicted, he’ll likely be required to register as a sex offender, and his scummy profile and location would be available online to anyone who wants to look it up. No one would really care if this continuing scrutiny violated his right to privacy.

Oh, wait, someone does care. It’s the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. During a legislative committee public hearing in March, ACLU policy counsel Michael Kebede said he hopes the state someday passes what he called the “golden standard” of privacy-protection laws by sealing nearly all criminal records.

Because you don’t really need to know if the clerk at the supermarket is a convicted rapist.

Until that “golden” day arrives, the ACLU is supporting a much narrower bill that would allow some young-adult offenders found guilty of minor, nonviolent crimes (known as Class E misdemeanors) to petition the court to seal their records once they’d completed their sentences and an additional four years had passed.

According to the Portland Press Herald, Kebede made it clear this modest change is intended to clear the way for more radical privacy measures.

“This is what we could get now,” he said. “And this also gives the state and the judiciary … practice. It gives them something to point to when, down the road, we ask for the golden standard. It gives the state some experience in the area so we’re not acting totally in the dark when a future legislator introduces a golden standard.”

Maybe that’ll be right around the time Eliot Cutler gets out of prison.

You might suppose the state’s news media would be opposed to even opening the door to this kind of restriction of the public’s right to know (another one of those much-compromised rights). But the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, made up of newspapers, TV, and online outlets, seemed strangely unconcerned. Coalition spokeswoman Judy Meyer, the executive editor of the Sun Journal, Morning Sentinel, and Kennebec Journal (three newspapers in desperate need of better executive editing), told the committee sealing some low-level records is OK with them.

But Meyer also said she wasn’t convinced more serious crimes should be covered up.

“I do think there are legitimate public interests in having access to public records that go beyond the defendant’s need to restart their life,” she testified. “When those records are pulled out of the public view, the public loses that ability to understand the prosecutorial process. The public has a huge interest in knowing how that process works.”

One small mistake shouldn’t wreck a person’s life. Reasonable people recognize that and temper their knowledge of youthful indiscretions with a certain amount of compassion. That makes this proposed law mostly unnecessary.

Then there’s the information age, which renders such legislation ineffective. The courts may seal records, but the internet has no such intention. If the slightest hint of wrongdoing ever makes it online, it will live on forever, awaiting retrieval by future gossips and hatemongers.

Because this whole idea of a right to privacy is mostly a myth.

Disturb my peace and quiet at your own risk by emailing

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