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The Right to Know vs. the Need to Know

Arnetta Garcin of Lynbrook High School in San Jose, Calif.

Arnetta L. Garcin
Lynbrook High School
San Jose, Calif.

Title: The Right to Know vs the Need to Know

Background: As a warm-up activity for our discussion of the controversies inherent in an evaluation of the right to know vs. the need to know, I begin by asking my students what they think they have a right to know about me, their instructor, or other students within the class.

Students generally offer such questions as:

  • Where did you go to college?
  • What are your credentials to teach?
  • How long have you taught?
  • What subjects have you taught?

If the question is appropriate and important to their right to know, I will answer the question.

They also typically ask questions such as:

  • Have you always lived in this area?
  • Have you any accomplishments which you take pride in?
  • What do you want to do when you grow up? regarding themselves and fellow students.

However, when students begin posing questions such as…

  • How old are you?
  • Are you married?
  • Do you have children?
  • What political party do you belong to?
  • What faith do you practice?

… I respond with “Why do you need to know this information about me as your teacher?

A short discussion leads to the observation that they are entitled to ask questions which relate to my professional life, but do not have the right nor the need to know about my personal, private life. Be aware that students will often debate with you as to whether they need to know such information as your religious beliefs, moral values, political affiliation, etc., arguing that as “role models,” teachers’ behavior outside the classroom is just as relevant as that within.


  • I will often divide the class in half, at that point, and have them debate this issue, allowing them to ascertain for themselves that unless a teacher’s or a studentÕs private life affects the classroom in an unprofessional or illegal manner, they, as journalists, do not have the right nor need to ask personal questions.
  • Following this “into” activity, we extend our discussion to examine the privacy rules as a whole, evaluating who among our own student body, and the public in general, would be subject to greater scrutiny and/or criticism based on these statutes. From this activity students learn the parameters, established both by law and journalistic ethics, for interviewing questions.

    Next, students are shown the video “Absence of Malice,” an excellent vehicle for generating discussion on journalistic ethics with regard to the right to know vs. the need to know. The reporter in this film, played by Sally Field, reveals in her story information of a highly personal nature revealed to her by a young, Catholic woman who wished to clear charges against a close friend of hers who had been accused to committing a crime during the time he was with her. The film raises the following question:

    Even though the public may have a legal right to know where the man was during the time he was charged with committing a crime, did the public, in this case, have a need to know this information, when such information resulted in extreme embarrassment to the young woman, who subsequently committed suicide?

The question always results in a lively discussion. I follow this up by asking class members if a newspaper should print the names and addresses of all rape victims, because once such names are entered onto public record, the press has the right to print them?

Following the student response to this question, I share with them the example of a Florida newspaper which was taken to court for printing the names of the rape victims published in court records, defending its right to do so, a right which the court upheld.

This particular lesson is one which has engaged my students in critical thinking at its highest level, causing them to reflect not only on the law and its implication, but also to consider the ethics involved — the human factor.

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