Humans cherish privacy. Don't believe me?
Just observe the recent actions of the group MormonLeaks.
On Thursday, the self-proclaimed transparency crusaders of MormonLeaks published an op-ed in the Deseret News in response to this paper's editorial.
Although four members “affiliate” with the group MormonLeaks, only Ryan McKnight and Scott Fausett were willing to put their bylines on the piece. The others who helped craft the op-ed asked to be identified as “The MormonLeaks Team.”
So much for transparency.
It’s old news now that on Monday, MormonLeaks published several unverified documents related to the personal finances of general authorities in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In its op-ed, MormonLeaks wrote that the group’s “sole mission” is to publish material from “anonymous sources” in order to bring about greater transparency.
Any irony in pushing for transparency while simultaneously encouraging anonymity is apparently lost on the group.
To be fair, in the case of whistle-blowers, informants and other important sources, society provides space for anonymity. And although the preference is always for direct attribution, legal and social norms carve out exceptions when a boon of information — i.e., evidence of crimes or corruption — outweighs any anti-social risks associated with anonymity.
MormonLeaks, however, has not offered a compelling justification for invading personal privacy.
To date, MormonLeaks has published a small cache of private video conversations and presentations as well as several personal finance documents. In effect, the group pried into personal privacy simply because, as McKnight states, the material “hasn't previously been disclosed.”
The group now claims it's also trying to stimulate conversation. Yet, as scholar Matthew Bowman pointed out, the real conversation they’ve catalyzed centers around why this information is now public in the first place.
After the leaks on Monday, the Deseret News Editorial Board rightly questioned the group’s decision, suggesting that its actions can be corrosive to democracy.
In MormonLeaks' subsequent op-ed response, the group shot back claiming that the Editorial Board’s arguments are “bothersome” and “unverifiable at best.”
It’s worth asking then, do the members of MormonLeaks consider well-established legal doctrines and social norms surrounding privacy to be both “bothersome” and “unverifiable”?
The group claims to protect personal "privacy," except when it comes to LDS Church leaders, of course.
For well over a century, jurists and legal scholars have recognized a robust right to personal privacy.
Since the nation's founding, the Bill of Rights and common law enshrined the principle of privacy by protecting against unreasonable search of “persons, houses, papers, and effects.” Yet in the late-19th century it was Justice Louis Brandeis and lawyer Samuel Warren who first dubbed privacy “the right to be left alone.”
And, as U.S. jurisprudence increasingly confronted the ills of so-called yellow journalism, along with technological advancements such as photography, the legal zeitgeist yet again acknowledged the profound societal value of personal privacy.
Today, strong Supreme Court precedent protects the right to privacy. Moreover, most U.S. jurisdictions allow legal claims against the tortious intrusion of private affairs.
Even beyond U.S. borders, the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 famously states: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation.”
Arbitrarily publishing personal financial documents breaches basic expectations of privacy embodied in the above doctrines. Such behavior is more than bothersome — it’s detrimental to democracy.
Those who respect human rights, the rule of law and civil society understand that the proper manner to push for greater transparency from any institution is not through flouting individual personal privacy. The battle for transparency is properly fought with the weapons of reason, persuasion and practical proposals.
MormonLeaks took a step in the right direction by publishing an op-ed in the Deseret News. This is commendable. However, using the op-ed to casuistically justify a form of information voyeurism is as civically unhealthy as it is personally disturbing.
In the wake of World War II, it’s little wonder that one of the few nations to forgo adopting the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights — including its robust privacy protections — was the USSR.
Fast-forward to 2017 and Russia now faces allegations of hacking into the Democratic National Committee emails and leaking private correspondence to WikiLeaks.
Russia, of course, is not known for transparency. Neither is WikiLeaks. Julian Assange's employees must sign aggressive nondisclosure agreements that threaten multimillion-dollar penalties for noncompliance.
For its part, MormonLeaks feels comfortable enough contravening the personal privacy of others while insisting on the privileges of privacy when it pens public op-eds.
They criticize the "control of information" in one line of their op-ed and then later admit to controling information. "To publish everything verbatim of how (a leaked document) was received would be unethical and irresponsible," they write.
The ironies couldn't be more transparent.
Hal Boyd is the opinion editor of the Deseret News.
Email: [email protected]