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Book Review: Guarding Life's Dark Secrets: Legal And Social Controls Over Reputation, Propriety, And Privacy, by Lawrence M. Friedman

Publication Date: 
September 07, 2008
Law and Politics Book Review
James A. Gardner

Professor Lawrence M. Friedman's book, Guarding Life's Dark Secrets, is reviewed in Law and Politics Book Review:

What is “privacy”? Why do we value it? What precisely is the harm caused by its invasion?

... In his new book, Stanford legal historian Lawrence M. Friedman does not address these questions directly, but lays some useful groundwork for their contemplation by providing a social history of the legal remedies most commonly associated with protecting the privacy of personal information and behavior. Friedman’s argument is discomfiting: the array of legal remedies that we have inherited – the laws of libel, slander, blackmail, censorship, and so on – were designed in different times to treat very different social problems, and speak little if at all to contemporary circumstances.

The heart of Friedman’s account is his contention, persuasively documented, that many legal regimes now commonly thought to protect personal privacy evolved originally during the nineteenth century to protect something quite different: reputation. According to Friedman, strict nineteenth-century [*763] codes of public morality reflected demanding collective ideals of personal virtue. These ideals defined the best life as one characterized by discipline, self-control, hard work, piety, temperance, and frugality. Personal reputation – the key to social respectability and economic prosperity for the upper classes – depended upon compliance with these standards. Strict laws of defamation, for example, prevented public revelation of reputation-damaging misbehavior, even when the charges were true.