Acton Institute Powerblog

Privacy and Public Persons

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This week’s Acton Commentary from Rev. Gregory Jensen, “Finding the Balance: Privacy and the Civil Society,” is a thoughtful reflection on the place of privacy in our modern life.

I have recently made the claim that public persons, such as police officers and politicians, have a somewhat different claim to privacy than private persons.

This was especially in the context of controversy over the legality of videorecording police officers while on the job. Gizmodo follows up on a previous item (discussed here) with another one, linking to a Popular Mechanics article in which “Glenn Harlan Reynolds notes that mall cops may have a legal basis for asking you to put your camera away, public property (such as any sidewalk, street, or municipal area) is always fair game.”

The current situation is, apart from the special kinds of state-level legislation discussed in the previous post, that “Legally, it’s pretty much always okay to take photos in a public place as long as you’re not physically interfering with traffic or police operations.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Patrick

    Ambiguity appears to interfere here. What are the meanings of “private” property and “privacy”? A working definition of privacy, it seems to me, is the right to control the flow of information within a defined area where a non-governmental agent exercises dominion and control. Thus, mall Security could expect to be free of video taping from a Guest in the mall, but have the mall cameras video tape his request that the Guest not use a video recording device in the mall.

    When a government agent comes onto private property, the owner, one who has dominion and control, loses a certain amount of control to the state. . . what was once private, now becomes public. It would seem to me, that when a government agent is acting with the potential threat of force, then the area is public. But, when, for example, that agent needs to follow nature’s call, personal privacy ought to be assumed.

    Does a bank have the right to video record FDIC auditors? What about Weights & Measures employees or Firemen who come on private property for inspection purposes? Are agencies such as OSHA, IRS or the various municipal code enforcement officials to expect privacy?