Packwood and Privacy

SEN. Bob Packwood, under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee for charges of sexual harassment, is refusing to comply with a subpoena to review parts of his private diary. The subpoena and Mr. Packwood's response are the talk of Capitol Hill. The case is hot, partly because it may force a precedent for standards of privacy that could wind up in the Supreme Court; and partly because diary material may incriminate members of Congress in areas separate from the focus of the harassment case.

This has not been a good year for Packwood. Questioned prior to the Nov. 3 Senate election in Oregon about sexual harassment, Packwood denied any unseemly conduct, and his staff members conducted a campaign of threats and intimidation to keep the story out of the papers and to malign those making charges.

Three weeks later, when the Washington Post ran a story about 10 former Packwood associates who had been subject to unwanted fondling or kissing, the senator changed his story and apologized. Then 13 more women came forth, and a Senate ethics investigation was launched.

Recommended: Newt Gingrich ethics investigation: 4 facts you haven't heard from him

Packwood's behavior has not been exemplary. Having essentially lied to his constituents, conducted a smear campaign, and attempted to block an ethics investigation, this week he went on the Senate floor to say material in his diary could harm colleagues. The implicit demand: Squash the subpoena. This case isn't getting any more ennobling for anyone, and perhaps Packwood should have done what Oregon voters, and we, suggested months ago: step down.

Having said that, we must note that the subpoena could set a dangerous precedent. It is not Packwood but privacy that needs protection here: an individual's right to conduct a conversation with his or her conscience via the word. A diary is not the record of an organization or a business. Nor is it principally a record of public business, as were the Nixon tapes. To tell officials that their private musings and wrestlings are fair game is a chilling message.

Investigators say there is ``no constitutional privacy right'' to personal papers. In a criminal case a diary may be subpoenaed, subject to filtering irrelevant material. Since Packwood has already given up much of the diary, it is late to be shouting ``privacy.'' An independent review may be in order.

Still, private thoughts ought to be protected, not penalized, and not subject to the whims of predatory investigators or tides of popular causes.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...