Public and Private Law

July 11, 2020

by Steve Stofka

A recent Tik-Tok video shows a woman berating some unseen worker at a dental office. The problem? The woman is not wearing a mask and is not allowed past the reception desk for her appointment. She claims to know the law and is going to sue them. She does have intimate knowledge of a private law that she carries around in her head. She is Queen of her own private island. Public law and the courts disagree with her, but many of us live by two laws – the public and the private.

This is a good jumping off point for a discussion on the freedoms of private businesses. In 1960, in Greensboro North Carolina, four black university students staged a sit-in at a Woolworth’s 5&10c store which would not serve them at the lunch counter. Woolworth was well within their rights at this time. It was the southern way.

Over the next few weeks, the number of people grew and attracted national attention, including President Eisenhower. White residents staged a counter protest which turned violent. Boycotts of other stores began and caused substantial sales losses to Woolworth. A few months later, Woolworth desegregated their lunch counters. Discrimination in places that served the public was made illegal with the passage of the Civil Rights Act four years later.

Generally, a business has the freedom to screen their customers based on a criteria that applies to everyone. Restaurants often post “No shoes, no shirt, no service,” and may add “no mask” to that list. Inebriated customers at beach communities sometimes protest about the “no shirt” provision. This is America, man. I have my rights! The bouncer ushers the customer out the door or the proprietor calls the police.

We understand that religious communities have a set of laws different from civil law. People who object to a woman’s right to an abortion may do so based on a 19th century papal proclamation that life began at conception (McGarry, 2013). That papal bull overturned centuries of Catholic teaching.

At a campsite near Lake City, Florida, I was first introduced to an alternate interpretation of civil law, but one based on a historical, not religious, foundation. Following the Civil War, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were passed over the objections of many southerners who felt that the North was an occupier in their land (Foner, 2020). These amendments had been forced on the southern states. Within a decade, southern states passed Jim Crow laws that undid much of the three amendments.

Under this interpretation, I was informed, Supreme Court decisions based on these coercive amendments were “illegal and void” under the exclusionary rule. This included the court’s 1954 ruling that desegregated public schools and the Roe v. Wade decision that invalidated state laws that prohibited abortion. Crazy talk? The exclusionary rule relates to the admissibility of evidence, not the validity of court decisions (Web Solutions, n.d.). That private interpretation of the law certainly guides the actions and attitudes of too many.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act hoped to end many decades of housing discrimination in state and federal law. Instead, it pushed the discrimination underground (McGhee, 2018). A real estate agent might be hesitant to show a house to a black couple in a white neighborhood. She wants to get referrals from neighbors or other agents, who might wonder: Can she not navigate the subtle dynamics of filtering out less optimum clients? Keep silent. Two laws – public and private.

As discussed last week, all states require people to wear seat belts. The NHTSA reports that almost half of those killed a few years ago were not wearing seat belts (NHTSA, n.d.). But what about the law of personal freedom? It is written in the Constitution, man! I have my rights! Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The phrase is a declaration of intent and sentiment found in the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. It has no force of public law but is the cornerstone of private law.

There are laws against dumping but many contractors will dispose of remodel trash in dumpsters to save the time and expense of driving to the city dump. According to a contractor’s private interpretation of the law, it’s not really dumping because the debris is going into a container. Private law vs. public law.

Let’s now revisit the woman in the video who yelled at the worker in the dentist’s office. Under contract law or maybe it is appointment law, she made an appointment with the dentist and she showed up on time so the dentist has to see her. Those are the only facts that matter. Aren’t we all angry when other people do not recognize the same private laws that we carry around in our heads? Does someone else have the same personal freedom that I do – to form a private interpretation of the Constitution? Well, of course. But if they are wrong, then no they don’t, man. That’s in my private Constitution.



Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

Foner, E. (2020, April 03). Reconstruction. Retrieved July 11, 2020, from

McGarry, P. (2013, July 01). Catholic Church teaching on abortion dates from 1869. Irish Times. Retrieved July 11, 2020, from

McGhee, F. (2018, December 04). The Most Important Housing Law Passed in 1968 Wasn’t the Fair Housing Act. Retrieved July 11, 2020, from

NHTSA. (2020, January 15). Seat Belts. Retrieved July 11, 2020, from

Web Solutions. (n.d.). Search and Seizure – The Exclusionary Rule And The Fruit Of The Poisonous Tree Doctrine. Retrieved July 11, 2020, from

Wikipedia. (2020, June 15). Greensboro sit-ins. Retrieved July 12, 2020, from

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