The Supreme Court has dealt privacy advocates a huge setback. By a 5-3 majority, the court ruled that people who sue the government for invading their privacy can only recover out-of-pocket damages. And whistle-blower lawyers say that leaves victims who suffer emotional trouble and smeared reputations with few if any options.
In 1974, while the abuses of Watergate were fresh in people’s minds, Congress made that kind of unauthorized information-sharing illegal under the Privacy Act. The law said the U.S. had to pay actual damages to victims.
But in Wednesday’s ruling, Alito said actual damages represent monetary harm, not mental or emotional distress.
“This decision is a severe setback to an important post-Watergate reform,” says its general counsel, David Colapinto. “These are very very extreme cases that end up going to court under the Privacy Act. A lot of the plaintiffs are whistle-blowers, people who have suffered retaliation.”
Legal experts say the Privacy Act has weak criminal sanctions. Now that most civil penalties are off the table too, the government could be even more brazen about targeting political enemies, Colapinto says.