The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.
The saying, it turns out, has some of its pedigree in Prohibition, during which the right to serve drinks was said to interfere with the rights of the family. But misapplication to “group rights” aside, it’s a phrase that captures our system of rights well. You are (or should be) free to do whatever you wish, so long as you don’t injure others in their rights.
You can see society hammering out the dividing line between rights in a case that produced a jury verdict last Friday: Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker. The provocative website published a mid-2000 video of the former wrestler and TV personality having sex with a friend’s wife. Hogan sued and won a verdict of $115 million, which Gawker will appeal.
The argument on Hulk’s side is that public exposure of a person’s intimate moments and bodily functions violates a right to privacy. The free speech argument is that a person has a right to broadcast and discuss anything he or she pleases.
These are both important rights. The privacy right is a little younger, having developed since about 1890. The free speech right pre-existed its 1791 acknowledgement in the Bill of Rights, so speech has a stronger heritage. But the dividing line will never be decided once and for all. Common practices and common mores will set and reset the line between these rights through accretion and erosion, the way a winding river divides a plain. That way of producing rules is very special: common law courts deciding in real cases what serves justice best.