06/14/2010 07:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

US Rep Bob Etheridge's "Right"

The video of US Congressman Bob Etheridge (D-NC) assaulting a student has gone viral. In the video, the students film Etheridge walking down the street and try to ask him some questions when the Congressman physically assaults the student and justifies the attack saying he has a right to know who is asking him a question.

Now, I'm a big fan of individuals--not states--having rights and applaud that people know their rights and stand up for them. But here, I am a little confused as to which "right" Mr. Etheridge references when he says, "I have a right to know who you are."

Here is the video of the exchange:

To settle my curiosity, I called Etheridge's Congressional office to ask about the "right" to know he referenced. A woman in his office politely and professionally told me they had no statement at this time, but she took my information to get back with me. I will update this post if/when I get a response. His statement makes no reference to the "rights" argument.

I also asked some legal and privacy minded friends about this unknown to me "right" and got some responses. Here are a few of them:

From Eugene Volokh,

This is pretty clearly tortious and criminal assault, but I'm not sure that the claim that he has "a right to know who you are" is a claim of a legal right (partly since there is no such legal right). It might be a claim of moral or ethical right: If you're going to ask me questions, I'm entitled to have you identify yourself. [Oh, I should have said it's pretty clearly assault based on what we see in the video, absent other extenuating factors (such as reason for the Congressman to be afraid that he was being threatened with violence or some such); it's impossible to tell for sure just from an edited video.]

Robert Ellis Smith, Publisher of Privacy Journal, adds,

"There is no requirement that an individual identify himself to a non-law enforcement person and no entitlement of such a person to demand ID of any other person. Even an elected official may not make such a demand, any more than he may make an arrest or conduct a search.

Law-enforcement may require identification of an individual only when that person raises suspicion adequate to permit a stop and frisk of the person. In 1983 the U.S. Supreme Court said that a California law was vague and therefore unconstitutional because it required "credible and reliable" identification be presented to a law enforcement person upon mere demand. Kolender v. Lawson, 461 US 352.

In addition, the Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the right to anonymous free speech is protected by the First Amendment. McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, 514 U.S. 334 (1995). Citizens United v. Fed. Elections Comm., 08-205 (2010). The right to speak anonymously also includes the right not to speak and to remain anonymous, except when raising suspicion in front of a law-enforcement officer."

From Adam Kokesh who has a history of protesting and has testified before Congress a few times on transparency,

He has a right to ignore anonymous questions and state that position should he choose to take it, but not in a way that violates another person's rights and clearly not to assault him. He has no inherent right to know the identity of another person in a public place. At the same time, the student has a right to ask questions with or without identifying himself.

Dane vonBreichenruchardt of the US Bill of Rights Foundation, says based only on what he knows from the video,

Etheridge is guilty of simple assault and the student should swear out a warrant for him if he thought it necessary. Etheridge could have refused the interview until the student properly identified himself. The video is admissible in court. The right does not exist. That's why I said 'Etheridge could have refused the interview until the student properly identified himself.' That is the only recourse Etheridge had.

Dane adds that he met the Congressman on the street during the protests against the health care reform bill and found him to be a perfect gentleman who took the time to discuss the issues during a heated political time. Dane explained that even though he opposed the bill the Congressman "could not have been nicer" and thought what got into him when he saw the video--Etheridge had not asked him who he was until the end of a long, polite conversation.

Here is a video of the Congressman discussing Civic Engagement and why he went into politics to support education:

It will be interesting to see if he stands by his unique understanding of "rights" or not.