Maureen Murphy is like a lot of Americans. She values her privacy and carefully guards her personal information. She grew alarmed when a Census Bureau field agent came to her Pacific Northwest home at 8 p.m. on a cold December night asking her to answer the American Community Survey (ACS). Not only did the form include far more than the seven questions on the normal census conducted every 10 years, but they were extremely detailed and intrusive.
In addition to exhaustive questions about her house, the survey asked about her job, gender and sexual orientation, whether parents and children in the same home are biologically related, and whether and how many times each person was previously married, widowed, or divorced.
There was no way Maureen would answer, even though the survey stated her truthful response is required by law. Census Bureau officials continued to show up at her home, asking her to complete the survey. She refused each time.
John Huddleston also received the ACS at his California home. He also refused to answer the over-the-top personal questions.
Maureen and John are not alone in their refusal to answer the invasive ACS questions. Thousands of Americans do. Their defiance puts them at risk of massive fines. The survey contains upward of 100 questions, and according to the Census Bureau, any left unanswered can result in criminal penalties of up to $5,000—per question. Simply leaving the surveys blank could draw a potential punishment of $500,000.
Maureen and John aren’t backing down.
The Constitution requires a census every 10 years to count the number of people in the country in order to allocate representation in Congress. But the Census Bureau has no authority to compel people to divulge any information the agency thinks is interesting.
Two federal statutes allow the Census Bureau to supplement its 10-year census with minor statistical adjustments to avoid undercounting people and to ensure accuracy. But these statutes are narrow. They do not permit the bureau to compel people to answer sampling surveys like the ACS.
And nothing gives the bureau the power to impose a whopping $5,000 fine for refusing to answer questions in the ACS. The bureau cannot apply the fine Congress authorized for the 10-year census to other surveys, and it certainly cannot unilaterally redefine a statutory violation as a crime and raise the penalty 50-fold to $5,000.
Refusing to divulge private information to the government should not be a crime. It is the exercise of the right to privacy and the right to not be compelled to speak.
The Constitution protects these rights and prevents the Census Bureau from assuming powers not authorized by law.
Represented by PLF at no charge, Maureen and John are challenging the Census Bureau’s overreach, so no Americans are ever again forced to choose between huge fines and their right to keep their personal information private.