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Privacy Law

An overview of privacy law resources available through the UNC Law Library.

Constitutions

US Constitution

The right to privacy is protected in part by the Constitution of the United States. The Supreme Court has interpreted several of the constitutional amendments as protecting privacy in various situations. One of the most well-known constitutional protections of privacy is the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Though the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and of the press are often seen as conflicting with privacy interests, the First Amendment may also offer privacy protections, as it has been interpreted as protecting anonymous speech and freedom of association.

Accessing the United States Constitution

The text of the United States Constitution is freely available via the Legal Information Institute and as downloadable PDFs with extensive annotations via Congress.gov.

In Westlaw or Lexis (available to the UNC Law community with a login), the easiest way to access the U.S. Constitution is via slow-typing "United States Constitution" in the main search field and choosing the result from the drop-down list that appears.

State Constitutions

State constitutions may also be a source of privacy protections. A number of states, such as South Carolina, Florida, California, and Illinois, have constitutional provisions expressly protecting privacy. The National Conference of State Legislatures maintains a list of such state constitutional provisions.

Accessing State Constitutions

State constitutions are generally included in each state's statutory code. Annotated codes will contain citations to related court decisions and other sources interpreting the provisions.

To find state constitutions in their entirety in Westlaw or Lexis (available to the UNC Law community with a login), slow-type "[State Name] Constitution" (e.g., Florida Constitution) in the main search field and choose the result from the drop-down list that appears.

State governments also generally make their constitutions freely available via their official websites. This research guide from Indiana University provides convenient links to each state's constitution via state government websites. Use the alphabetical tabs to access a state's name.

Statutory Law

While there is no broad statutory right to privacy, federal and state governments have enacted laws to protect privacy rights in specific contexts. 

Federal Statutes

The United States Code (U.S.C.) is available in a number of locations, such as in print in the library [KF62 .A2] and via GovInfo.gov.

Annotated codes, such as the U.S.C.A. (United States Code Annotated), which is available on Westlaw, and the U.S.C.S. (United States Code Service), which is available on Lexis Advance, are useful research tools. In addition to the text of the statute, an annotated code includes notes and commentary on the law, such as summaries of relevant judicial decisions and citations to secondary sources that discuss the statute.

Below are examples of major federal laws that implicate privacy rights, with links to each statute's entry in the popular names table maintained by the freely accessible Legal Information Institute, followed by citations and links to session laws and codified statutes from Govinfo.gov. Make sure to check the U.S. Code for amendments to session laws.

State Statutes

The National Conference of State Legislatures maintains resources listing state statutes regarding various aspects of privacy. Also see the 50-State Surveys section of this research guide.

Regulatory Law

Regulations

Regulatory law may also provide protection of privacy rights.  Use the following resources to search for proposed rules, notices, guidance, and other administrative law.

  • Federal Administrative Rules and Regulations
    • Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) – www.ecfr.gov.  Updated daily, the e-CFR contains the general and permanent rules of government agencies arranged by subject. 
    • Federal Registerwww.federalregister.gov. This daily publication includes proposed rules for notice and comment, final rules, public notices, and other public documents. 
  • State Administrative Rules and Regulations:  There are a wide variety of administrative agencies in each state.  Proposed rules, notices, etc. usually appear in a daily or periodically published “register” and are later codified into an administrative “code.” 
Agencies

Agency Websites: If you know the agency—state or federal—that regulates the area of privacy law that interests you, try looking on the agency website for information.  Many publish proposed rules, public alerts, and other useful information that could be valuable for your research. The following are examples of federal agencies with oversight over aspects of privacy laws:

Court Opinions

Cases

Court opinions can be a rich source of information on privacy law. Court opinions help to interpret and apply statutory law at the state and federal level, and in some areas common law provides a remedy for violations of privacy.

Starting Points for Finding Cases

Court Dockets

Court Dockets and Filings

The filings from a case (such as motions, hearings, and orders) are an excellent source of information when you are studying a particular case in detail or if you are studying an ongoing case. The case docket allows you to view the filings for a particular case. Bloomberg Law is an excellent source for online access to court records and dockets as it pulls information directly from PACER, the online docket access platform for Federal courts.

State Courts

Many appellate state courts provide access to court dockets and records through the court website. Access to trial court records is not widely available. A list of state court docket access points is available through the National Center for State Courts, but the site is not regularly updated. Be sure to investigate whether a court provides access to dockets by visiting the court website.