The Ninth Amendment to the Constitution reads:
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
This amendment ensures that the Constitution — and by extension, the federal government — is not the final arbiter of a citizen’s rights. The framers of the Constitution worried that spelling out specific rights meant denying others. Such a document would never stand the test of time; social mores change, culture shifts, and technology advances. Indeed, the latter half of the 20th century saw increased American interest in civil rights. Some of these were incorporated as further amendments to the Constitution. In recent years, an individual’s right to privacy has become the focal point for the debate between personal liberty and public safety. Those who believe in an American’s inherent right to privacy point to the the Ninth Amendment as a protection against federal intrusion.
One of the early battlegrounds for privacy advocates was federally funded education. In 1974, passage of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (commonly known as the Buckley Act) granted students the right to view, challenge, and control the dissemination of their school records. Advocates saw the legislation as correcting a critical injustice: the contents of these files were often unavailable to students but easily accessible by teachers, administrators, social workers, health agencies, prospective employers, admissions officers, private testing services, police officers, courts, and the FBI. The Health, Education, and Welfare Department highlighted the relationship between personal privacy and record keeping thus: “An individual’s personal privacy is directly affected by the kind of disclosure and use made of identifiable information about him in a record.”
Congressman W.R. Poage encountered the real-world application of this law in 1975. After requesting the names of students graduating from a local high school, Principal Garland Bullock asked for clarification under the Buckley Act on the request’s legality. Poage contacted the HEW and relayed the Act’s relevant provisions.