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Wragg Abstract

Global Institute for Freedom and Awareness

Collaborative Research on Institutional Dynamics in Open Societies

Sporting Figures, 'Societal Duties' and its Effect on their Privacy Rights

Robin Barnes, Executive Director, Global Institute for Freedom and Awareness, US

Dr Paul Wragg, Associate Professor in Law, School of Law, University of Leeds

Professional football on both sides of the Atlantic has been plagued recently by parallel controversies in which offensive but privately-expressed thoughts of high-profile figures have been publicly disclosed in order to provoke public debate about the morality of those individuals either continuing to hold positions of power within the sport or of holding such positions in the future. Yet but for apparent breaches of confidence the evidence informing these discussions would not have been publicly known. The potential penalisation of these individuals for the expression of offensive and unpopular ideas in their private correspondence says something profound about the limits of rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

In an era of constant and ubiquitous public comment and condemnation on the attitudes and lifestyle choices of 'public figures' - a troublingly imprecise term potentially capturing anyone in public-facing employment - the limits of their constitutional rights is a matter of significant concern deserving of greater discussion.

This paper considers the philosophical and legal ramifications, in the United States and United Kingdom, of the popular treatment of prominent sporting figures as quasi public office holders. The popular reaction to offensive speech by public figures says something profound about the constitutional rights of those individuals and the extent to which they are, and should be, limited by the societal duties they are taken to hold on account of their prominence as role models.

Our paper argues that in order to avoid a deleterious impact on privacy rights more generally (and in a manner that could easily undermine privacy rights for ordinary members of the public), the imposition of such duties can only be justified in narrow circumstances where a clear connection between the offensive viewpoints and its impact on the public is meaningfully established. It will be argued that this safeguard is not yet realised in law, either nationally or supra-nationally.