John Whitehead's Commentary
The Right to Be Let Alone: When the Government Wants to Know All Your Business [SHORT]
There was a time when the census was just a head count.
That is no longer the case.
The American Community Survey (ACS), sent to about 3.5 million homes every year, is the byproduct of a government that believes it has the right to know all of your personal business.
If you haven’t already received an ACS, it’s just a matter of time.
A far cry from the traditional census, which is limited to ascertaining the number of persons living in each dwelling, their ages and ethnicities, the ownership of the dwelling and telephone numbers, the ACS contains some of the most detailed and intrusive questions ever put forth in a census questionnaire.
At 28 pages (with an additional 16-page instruction packet), these questions concern matters that the government simply has no business knowing, including questions relating to respondents’ bathing habits, home utility costs, fertility, marital history, work commute, mortgage, and health insurance, among other highly personal and private matters.
For instance, the ACS asks how many persons live in your home, along with their names and detailed information about them such as their relationship to you, marital status, race and their physical, mental and emotional problems, etc. The survey also asks how many bedrooms and bathrooms you have in your house, along with the fuel used to heat your home, the cost of electricity, what type of mortgage you have and monthly mortgage payments, property taxes and so on.
And then the survey drills down even deeper.
The survey demands to know how many days you were sick last year, how many automobiles you own and the number of miles driven, whether you have trouble getting up the stairs, and what time you leave for work every morning, along with highly detailed inquiries about your financial affairs. And the survey demands that you violate the privacy of others by supplying the names and addresses of your friends, relatives and employer.
The questionnaire also demands that you give other information on the people in your home, such as their educational levels, how many years of school were completed, what languages they speak and when they last worked at a job, among other things.
Individuals who receive the ACS must complete it or be subject to monetary penalties.
Although no reports have surfaced of individuals actually being penalized for refusing to answer the survey, the potential fines that can be levied for refusing to participate in the ACS are staggering. For every question not answered, there is a $100 fine. And for every intentionally false response to a question, the fine is $500. Therefore, if a person representing a two-person household refused to fill out any questions or simply answered nonsensically, the total fines could range from upwards of $10,000 and $50,000 for noncompliance.
While some of the ACS’ questions may seem fairly routine, the real danger is in not knowing why the information is needed, how it will be used by the government or with whom it will be shared.
In an age when the government has significant technological resources at its disposal to not only carry out warrantless surveillance on American citizens but also to harvest and mine that data for its own dubious purposes, whether it be crime-mapping or profiling based on whatever criteria the government wants to use to target and segregate the populace, the potential for abuse is grave.
As such, the ACS qualifies as a government program whose purpose, while sold to the public as routine and benign, raises significant constitutional concerns.
The Rutherford Institute has received hundreds of inquiries from individuals who have received the ACS and are not comfortable sharing such private, intimate details with the government or are unsettled by the aggressive tactics utilized by Census Bureau agents seeking to compel responses to ACS questions.
Those who want to better understand their rights in respect to the ACS may want to take a look at Rutherford’s Q&A resource on the topic.
Bottom line: there are significant and legitimate questions concerning the authority of the government to require, under threat of prosecution and penalty, that persons answer questions posed by the ACS.
While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that citizens have no obligation to answer questions posed by the government and are free to refuse to do so—a principle that could be applied to questions posed by ACS agents—the question of a person’s right to refuse has not yet been decided by a court.
Until the courts take up the challenge, if you receive notice that you have been targeted to respond to the ACS and you desire to assert your right of privacy, you can voice those objections and your intent not to respond to the ACS by writing a letter to the Census Bureau. The Rutherford Institute has developed a form letter that you may use in standing up against the government’s attempt to force you to disclose personal information.
If you are contacted by Census Bureau employees, either by telephone or in person, demanding your response, you can assert your rights by politely, but firmly, informing the employee that you believe the ACS is an improper invasion of your privacy, that you do not intend to respond and that they should not attempt to contact you again. Be sure to document any interactions you have with Bureau representatives for your own files.
If you believe you are being unduly harassed by a Census Bureau employee, either by telephone or in person, it is in your best interest to carefully document the time, place and manner of the incidents and file a complaint with the U.S. Census Bureau.
Remember, nothing is ever as simple or as straightforward as the government claims.
As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People and in its fictional counterpart The Erik Blair Diaries, any attempt by the government to encroach upon the citizenry’s privacy rights or establish a system by which the populace can be targeted, tracked and singled out must be met with extreme caution.
While government agents can approach, speak to and even question citizens without violating the Fourth Amendment, Americans should jealously guard what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis referred to as the constitutional “right to be let alone.”
ABOUT JOHN W. WHITEHEAD
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His most recent books are the best-selling Battlefield America: The War on the American People, the award-winning A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, and a debut dystopian fiction novel, The Erik Blair Diaries. Whitehead can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Nisha Whitehead is the Executive Director of The Rutherford Institute. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.
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