When Privacy Issues Hit Home

When Kyle Poplin, editor of The Ann (which is distributed with and to New York Times subscribers in Ann Arbor) approached me about writing an in-depth piece on the privacy issues raised by a hotly watched local case, I initially hesitated. The case involves a pediatrician, Howard Weinblatt, who was accused by his neighbor of masturbating while looking out of the window of his house at the neighbor’s 12-year-old daughter, while she was changing clothes. The mother observed this twice, then decided to videotape him the third time. That video became part of the prosecution’s case. Weinblatt settled the case, agreeing to move from his home and register on the Michigan Sex Offender Registry.

As a resident of Burns Park, the community where this occurred, I knew both of the parties in the case. I saw how the allegations rippled through our tight-knit community. I witnessed the pain it inflicted on all sides. I wondered whether it would be best to just leave this issue alone and allow the parties to move on with their lives, without subjecting them to further coverage in the press. Should I decide not to further invade their privacy? That idea held merit, but ultimately I decided to take on what would be one of the most interesting assignments of my 27-year career as a freelance journalist. The case wasn’t just about a doctor and his neighbor, and the blameless 12-year-old victim caught in the middle. It raised central issues of privacy and surveillance — issues that are likely to be played out repeatedly in a society where the details of everyone’s life are broadcast through texts and in social media. I often tell my teenage children: be careful what pictures you post on Facebook. It could come back to haunt you. The long-held rules for what is considered a private matter have been thrown out, and we’re forced to navigate an entirely different landscape. Can you be prosecuted for what you do behind closed doors, if someone else sees you doing it? Do you have license to record what you see and use that in prosecution? This embarks on new terrain, and I felt the subject was worthy of an in-depth follow-up article.

Of course the particulars of this case are unusual and horrifying to anyone. I tried to tackle this subject with objectivity, sensitivity and fairness. If the  anonymous comments following news accounts of the case appearing in are any indication, this is a subject that inflames emotions and causes many of us to reach quick judgments about individuals and rights. While it may be difficult to avoid that process, I believe we should all pay attention to the larger privacy implications of this case and how they may affect us.

I welcome your thoughts on the article, which I hope will start an intelligent discussion on this important issue.

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