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Privacy as a Civil Right


As the first U.S.-born Hispanic senator, Senator Dennis Chávez of New Mexico left a rich legacy of advocacy for civil rights and civil liberties. In this lecture, the fourth U.S. Senator Dennis Chávez Endowed Lecture on Law and Civil Rights, I explore an idea at the intersection of those two bodies of law: the right to privacy. In 2020, the hallmark of surveillance is its ubiquity; “everyone is watched.” Unfortunately, this discourse erases the fact that, across American history, the burdens of government surveillance have fallen overwhelmingly on the shoulders of immigrants, heretics, people of color, the poor, and anyone else considered “other.” Inspired by the legacy of “El Senador,” I trace that history from the English Puritans we now know as Pilgrims to the immigrant children detained at the southern U.S. border. I go on to argue that if we acknowledge the “color of surveillance,” we must reckon with its consequence. If surveillance is a tool used to threaten the vulnerable, we must understand privacy not just as a civil liberty, but also a civil right: A shield that allows the unpopular and persecuted to survive and thrive.

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