As a senior at Princeton, Samuel Alito '72, President Bush's nominee to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court, chaired a Wilson School undergraduate conference that authored a report calling for the bolstering of privacy rights, including the creation of a federal privacy ombudsman and the decriminalization of sodomy.
"At the present time ... we sense a great threat to privacy in modern America," Alito wrote in his "Report of the Chairman" on the "Conference on The Boundaries of Privacy in American Society."
"[W]e all believe that privacy is too often sacrificed to other values," said the 1971 report, which is located in the University's Mudd Manuscript Library. "[W]e all believe that the threat to privacy is steadily and rapidly mounting; we all believe that action must be taken on many fronts now to preserve privacy."
Though Alito's name is attached to the chair's report, it remains unclear to what extent the report represented his personal opinions. Alumni, who served as "commissioners" for the junior conference Alito chaired, offered conflicting information on how best to interpret the report.
In interviews with The Daily Princetonian, several of Alito's peers described his role as that of "weaving" and "synthesizing" the "common threads" of the group's work, while offering "editorial comments."
Professor George Forgie, who served as the conference's director, recalled in an email that Alito probably "played some kind of coaching role." With four seniors serving as commissioners, Alito ostensibly guided the work of the 20 or so juniors participating in the conference. The conference is the equivalent of modern-day Wilson School junior taskforces.
The chair's report, judged in hindsight, offers what appears to be a remarkably prescient analysis, with recommendations for bolstering privacy in an increasingly computerized world, disallowing the CIA and military from conducting domestic surveillance and outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation.
"The cybernetic revolution has greatly magnified the threat to privacy today," Alito wrote in his report, recommending "specific safeguards to ensure the security of computer systems."
Also, saying it is "improper" for the CIA and the military to engage in domestic surveillance, the report noted that while "[i]t is indisputably legitimate for the government to attempt to prevent crime and subversion ... we are convinced that in recent years government has often used improper means to gather information about individuals who posed no threat either to their government or to their fellow citizens."
Foreshadowing recent concerns by some about domestic surveillance in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Alito wrote at the time: "While it is clearly the responsibility of the F.B.I. to investigate internal subversion, it is the consensus of the Conference that the F.B.I. has interpreted internal subversion too broadly in recent years."
Mindful of increasing concerns about individual privacy, the 9/11 Commission recommended in its 2004 report that Congress create a privacy and civil liberties oversight board to craft and monitor government-wide standards — a federal body similar in principle to Alito's "Federal Privacy Ombudsman."
Responding to the commission's report, Bush created a board within the White House to advise him on privacy and civil liberties policy. The measure, though praised by some, has drawn fire from Democrats and civil liberties advocates, who claim that the president's board is not independent enough.
In addition to recommending that sodomy laws be changed, Alito wrote that the group believed that "no private sexual act between consenting adults should be forbidden," adding also that, "[d]iscrimination against homosexuals in hiring should be forbidden."
Some states continued to criminalize homosexual sodomy until 2003, when the Supreme Court struck down such laws in Lawrence v. Texas, a case that is viewed as a landmark ruling for gay rights and decried by conservatives as an example of judicial activism.
Also, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would have added sexual orientation to a list of other protected distinctions such as race and gender, failed again last year to garner enough support to pass Congress.
"The erosion of privacy, unlike war, economic bad times, or domestic unrest, does not jump to the citizen's attention and cry out for action," Alito's report concluded. "But by the time privacy is seriously compromised it is too late to clamor for reform."
"We must begin now to preserve privacy, and the first step is for Americans to understand the threats to privacy we now face and the threats inherent in our technological society."
— Includes reporting by Princetonian Senior Writer Christian Burset.