The Right to Privacy: James Otis and the Revolutionary Origins of the 4th Amendment.


Program Description:

This presentation will discuss the 1761 Writs of Assistance case. In that colonial-era Boston hearing, James Otis, Jr. offered the first American opposition to British ministerial policy. Otis opposed the issuance of writs of assistance, a legal tool that functioned like a general search warrant, enabling British customs officers to search private homes and shops for smuggled goods. Otis saw this as a violation of the British constitution, and also as an instrument to effect the collection of revenue in America. Our current 4th Amendment protections against unwarranted search and seizure can be traced to that pre-Revolutionary case. With current concerns about the overreach of government surveillance, some knowledge of the origin of our right to protection from government search is both helpful and valuable.


James M. Farrell

James M. Farrell is a Professor of Rhetoric in the Communication Department at the University of New Hampshire, where he teaches classes in argumentation, propaganda, rhetorical theory, rhetorical criticism, and American public address. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin—Madison in 1988, and has published numerous critical and historical studies of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century American discourse. He is a past winner of the Karl R. Wallace Memorial Award from the National Communication Association, and a past winner of the Excellence in Teaching Award from the College of Liberal Arts at UNH.

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