Late yesterday afternoon the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted an emergency stay, blocking the Monday morning release of the 1940 United States Federal Census. Privacy advocates filed a motion with the court claiming that longer lifespans made 72 years ineffective in protecting individual privacy. Public release of the census amounted to an unjustified violation of constitutional privacy rights.
While not explicitly mentioned in the United States constitution, the constitutional right to privacy is embodied throughout the Bill of Rights. The Fourth Amendment guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,” according to the motion filed with the court.
Personally identifiable information in United States decennial censuses is protected by Federal Statute (92 Stat. 915; Public Law 95-416) which prevents release of such information until 72 years after the information is collected. Privacy advocates argued that the 100 year old law does not take into account the increase in lifespan that has occurred since the law’s passage and that to release the 1940 census now would violate both the legislation’s intent and constitutionally ensured rights. Such a release would be an unwarranted Federal intrusion into the privacy of the nation’s citizens.
Lawyers from the United States Attorney General’s Office representing the National Archives of the United States argued that the National Archives has no choice. They must follow the statute as written.
Saturday afternoon the court agreed with the privacy arguments and granted a temporary stay. The court ordered the National Archives not to release the census until the court could convene a full hearing on the issue.
Attorneys from both sides were instructed to have complete briefs prepared for presentation on the hearing date, April Fools.