Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Is your garbage private?

The press release today from the CSU Stanislaus administration suggests that CSU Stanislaus Foundation Executive Director Susana Gajic-Bruyea's garbage is private. The press release omits the information that Gajic-Bruyea is also Vice President for University Advancement - that is, an employee of the CSU, with an office in the CSU Stanislaus administration building. That's important, because the administration is claiming that the Foundation Board and the university are really separate entities.

It's important because, in the press release, the allegation is presented that the allegedly non-existent document state senator Leland Yee acquired outlining some of the details of the university's contract with Sarah Palin was discovered to be missing from Gajic-Bruyea's recycling bin in her office.

AFTER Leland Yee's press conference, in which documents related to the Palin fund-raiser were presented to the press, the university's Vice President for Advancement (who also serves as the Executive Director for the Foundation Board) looked through the recycle bin in her office for the relevant pages of the contract, and found that they were missing. The university has launched an investigation into, basically, who could have stolen documents from the recycle bin...

Here's what I imagine happens to my garbage and what I pitch into the recycle bin in my department office, in my narrow-minded rationalistic conception of the world and causality: I imagine that people take it away and recycle it, or take it to the dump, as appropriate. When I return to my office days after having thrown something away, and find that it's not there, my first thought is not that it's been stolen. I'm not generally surprised when documents I put in the recycling bin aren't there afterwards. That's because, to me, a recycling bin is a place to put things I expect other people to take away and recycle, and a garbage can is place to put things I am throwing away that I expect other people to take away and compost, burn, or put in a landfill.

Do I retain a privacy right, or property right, or any other kind of right over the things I thus discard?

What could be the basis of the assertion of such a right? Do I have it only if I've discarded or recycled something the discovery of which is embarrassing to me? So, can I throw away, hypothetically speaking, gloves I've worn while committing a crime, and when these are later found in my trash, assert that my trash can is, as it were, my confessor, and throwing my bloody gloves in the trash tantamount to a protected confidence?

Let me offer another analogy. Let's say I've just shot Tony Danza to death in cold blood. (I most certainly did not. This is the kind of thing some philosophers like to call a thought experiment.) I then throw my pistol into a dumpster. Someone finds my pistol, and police begin an investigation, using the pistol as evidence. Do I have, at that point, legitimate grounds to say that the pistol I threw away was my private trash, not meant for anyone else to have, to see, or to use against me in legal action?

Let's say I throw the pistol away in my office (which is a place of public accommodation, where I have very little right to privacy). How legitimate are my grounds to say this is private material of my own?

I'm not at all sure I've got a good analogy going here, but I suppose I was seduced by the trope of the smoking gun.

1 comment:

noceleryplease said...

In NC your garbage is specifically not private. Once it's at the curb, it's free property. I think that goes in many states.