The right to avoid disclosure of personal matters is not absolute. Public health or like public concerns may justify access to information an individual may desire to remain confidential. In order to decide whether an intrusion into an individual's privacy is justified, the court must engage in the delicate task of weighing competing interests. The following factors should be considered: the type of record requested, the information it does or might contain, the potential for harm in any subsequent nonconsensual disclosure, the injury from disclosure to the relationship in which the record was generated, the adequacy of safeguards to prevent unauthorized disclosure, the degree of need for access, and whether there is an express statutory mandate, articulated public policy, or other recognizable public interest militating toward access.
In the fall of the 1999 school year, school officials in the Ridgewood public school district in New Jersey administered a survey entitled "Profiles of Student Life: Attitudes and Behaviors" to students in the 7th through 12th grades. The survey sought information about students' drug and alcohol use, sexual activity, experience of physical violence, attempts at suicide, personal associations and relationships (including the parental relationship), and views on matters of public interest. The survey itself was designed to be voluntary and anonymous. Survey results were designed to be and actually were released only in the aggregate with no identifying information. Plaintiff students and their mothers brought the present action against school defendants Ridgewood Board of Education and several individually named school administrators. Plaintiffs claimed that the survey had been administered so as to be involuntary and non-anonymous and had violated their rights under the Family Educational Records Privacy Act (FERPA), the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA), and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. In the course of analyzing the compelled speech claim, the district court concluded that the record supported a finding that the school board intended the survey to be voluntary.
In a case alleging a violation of the First Amendment's right protection against compelled speech and the compelled disclosure of private information, did defendant Ridgewood Board of Education intend the survey to public school students to be voluntary?
The United States Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment to the school defendants, but for different reasons. The Court concluded that the record supported a finding that the survey was intended by the school board and certain administrators as involuntary. The disputed issue of voluntariness, however, did not preclude summary judgment for school defendants because, according to the Court, even if the survey was administered as involuntary, no violation of the right to privacy or the First Amendment right against compelled speech was shown. The Court ruled that disclosure of personal information occurred only in the aggregate and was adequately safeguarded. As such, the survey's interference with any parental decision-making authority was not of constitutional gravity. In reaching its decision, the Court looked to precedent regarding the disclosure of personal matters. In determining whether information is entitled to privacy protection, the Court has looked at whether it is within an individual's reasonable expectations of confidentiality. The more intimate or personal the information, the more justified is the expectation that it will not be subject to public scrutiny. However, the right to avoid disclosure of personal matters is not absolute. Public health or like public concerns may justify access to information an individual may desire to remain confidential. In order to decide whether an intrusion into an individual's privacy is justified, the Court must engage in the delicate task of weighing competing interests. The Court concluded that the plaintiffs' disclosure-based privacy claim failed under the balancing test.