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Whalen v. Roe

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Citation Edit

Whalen v. Roe, 429 U.S. 589 (1977) (full-text).

Factual Background Edit

This case concerned a New York law that created a centralized state computer file of the names and addresses of all persons who obtained medicines containing narcotics pursuant to a doctor’s prescription.

Although the computer system was set up to prevent leaks and public disclosure of the identity of patients was made a crime, the system was challenged by those who feared that the information be revealed, stigmatizing patients as addicts in violation of their privacy rights.

U.S. Supreme Court Proceedings Edit

Although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state’s authority since it found no evidence of information falling into the wrong hands, it found this gathering of information to affect two interests:

  • The second privacy interest identified by the Court focused on an individual's "interest in independence in making certain kinds of important decisions."[1] The Court said that the important decision at issue was whether needed medicine would be acquired and utilized. The Court noted that although "some patients [were] reluctant to use, and some doctors were reluctant to prescribe drugs that were medically necessary because of a fear that that information would become 'publicly known' and 'adversely affect' their reputation,"[2] "independence in making certain kinds of important decisions," was not violated by New York's data processing activities because the "decision to prescribe, or to use" remained with the physician and patient."[3]

These two interests rest on the substantive due process protections found in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The Court specifically recognized a "right of informational privacy."

Justice Stevens' concurring opinion Edit

Justice Stevens left open the possibility that some future database might not be constitutionally acceptable if it were not adequately protected against improper use:

We are not unaware of the threat to privacy implicit in the accumulation of vast amounts of personal information in computerized data banks or other massive government files. . . . The right to collect and use such data for public purposes is typically accompanied by a concomitant statutory or regulatory duty to avoid unwarranted disclosures. Recognizing that in some circumstances that duty arguably has its roots in the Constitution, nevertheless New York’s statutory scheme . . . evidences a proper concern with, and protection of, the individual’s interest in privacy. We therefore need not, and do not, decide any question which might be presented by the unwarranted disclosure of accumulated private data whether intentional or unintentional or by a system that did not contain comparable security provisions. We simply hold that this record does not establish an invasion of any right or liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.[4]

Comment Edit

Generally, courts have applied the first privacy interest, that of non-disclosure of personal information in a mixed fashion. In contrast, courts have been reluctant to use the second interest as a bar to a state's information gathering practices.

References Edit

  1. Id. at 592-93.
  2. Id. at 603.
  3. Id.
  4. Id. at 505-06.

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