Thursday, May 31, 2007

CNN violates patient's right to privacy

While watching CNN for a moment this morning, the anchor flippantly said, "There has been a lot of debate between the patient's right to privacy versus the public's right to know," as they flash the picture and name of the man who is receiving so much media attention for being infected with a relatively rare, highly drug-resistent form of tuberculosis (TB). I should preface this post by noting two things: 1) that other news networks have likely done this same thing and I just happened to see and hear it on CNN, and 2) I'm little more than a dilettante with legal matters. Though CNN has made the information public domain, I will not be repeating it here out of principle:

The Atlanta lawyer who contracted a hard-to-treat form of potentially fatal tuberculosis is ______, 31, multiple medical and law enforcement sources told CNN. Hospital officials have not identified the man and his family has refused to talk to the media. (from


Dr. Charles Daley, head of the infectious disease division at National Jewish
[Hospital], said the hospital has treated two other patients with what appears
to be the same strain of tuberculosis since 2000, although that strain had not
been identified and named at the time. He said the patients had improved
enough to be released. (from

With these tidbits in mind, combined with the already official release of information relevant to seeking out those who may have been exposed to the individual and thus were at risk for infection, what is the public's right to know in this case? Where is the media's justification for violating the patient's right to privacy, when the treating hospital and patient's family obviously wished to respect his right to privacy?

Such justification cannot be found in concerns for public health. Firstly, the patient is not very contagious because he was carrying only a very little amount of the bacteria in his system, according to medical officials. Secondly, all of the information necessary for finding the individuals for testing who may have been exposed to the patient has already been revealed and officials are in the process of finding and testing all the people who were at risk. Thirdly, the man is under quarantine until it can be determined that he is not a risk to the public. In other words, there is no reason to reveal the man's name, because all appropriate and necessary steps are being taken to diffuse the risk to public health, and the release of the man's identity is requisite for none of them.

Regarding the "public's right to know"

The "public's right to know," as we so often hear, has no basis in the First Amendment, nor any other clause in the Constitution, and is in relation to the right for people to access information held by the government. Rather, its basis is in a law called the "Freedom of Information Act" (FOIA), first signed into law in 1966 by Lyndon B. Johnson, and is relevant only to government records--federal government information, at that, though most states have passed their own freedom of information acts, which are generally less transparent and thus require state governments in general to divulge less information. Importantly, I can find no indication that the federal law--that is, the more transparent of freedom of information laws--allows for the violation of a patient's right to privacy, especially when there is no risk to public health brought about by not violating the patient's right to privacy. To the contrary, two of the nine explicitly stated exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act are these: 1) "personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy," and 2) "[information that is] specifically exempted from disclosure by statute provided that such statute (A) requires that the matters be withheld from the public in such a manner as to leave no discretion on the issue, or (B) establishes particular criteria for withholding or refers to particular types of matters to be withheld." The former's application is obvious, while in the case of the latter, statutes do indeed exist dictating the privacy and handling of medical records. Thus, the media has misleadingly distorted the nature of the "public's right to know," in violation of its law of origin, for its own selfish benefit in reporting.

The media reported it because they are scrupleless bastards who are constantly clawing at any new morsel of information to feed into their morbidly voracious 24-hour news cycle, at the expense, in this case, of the patient's right to privacy legally recognized by this society. If there indeed had been much debate in the newsroom between this right and the "public's right to know," that debate was extremely poorly executed by a room apparently full of myopic dimwits.
Now, complicating factors? Well, the patient was essentially banned from flying, which he did anyway, and more or less snuck back into the country, tacitly admitting his knowledge of his wrong-doing. He needlessly and recklessly put a lot of people at risk, and surely must have made himself a target for those ever-litigious Americans, or a target of the government directly. I would imagine that it is only at the point of litigation that a name could or should be revealed.

Currently listening to: "Billie Jean" by Chris Cornell (Michael Jackson cover)
Previous activity: Waking up
Next thing on the agenda: Showering, dressing, eating

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