39

Larry Lawton is a favourite YouTuber of mine. He tells the story of while he was in prison he asked his father why he stopped writing him letters. His father told him that he never stopped sending him letters, he then said to his father he thinks the prison is tampering with his mail.

His father then said he would handle it. The post office then said that they have some sort of mail tampering test that they can do to see if mail is getting to its intended receiver. It turned out that the prison official was indeed tampering with the mail. The post master general of the area then decided that every inmate at the facility would from then on have their mail delivered in person by a post officer and no prison official would ever handle inmates' mail again. A lot of prison officials, including the warden, lost their jobs as a consequence during the process.

This story being good and all did make me think that Americans take the mail very seriously. Makes me wonder if taking a baseball bat to someone's mailbox would get you 20 years. Why does the US take crimes against your inbox so seriously? It all seems rather strange to me.

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  • 20
    Not 20 years. 18 U.S. Code § 1705 - Destruction of letter boxes or mail, "Whoever willfully or maliciously injures, tears down or destroys any letter box or other receptacle intended or used for the receipt or delivery of mail on any mail route, or breaks open the same or willfully or maliciously injures, defaces or destroys any mail deposited therein, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both."
    – Rick Smith
    Sep 16 at 20:17
  • 50
    That is a nice story. It is so sad that it is also completely fake. Prison officers may check mail searching for contraband (drugs,...) and even censor it; the only exception could be mail from the inmate's lawyer but only because it could break lawyer-client confidentiality ((check with the ACLU)[aclu.org/know-your-rights/prisoners-rights/]). That does not mean that mail secrecy is not a serious issue in the USA, and a prison officer abusing his position to intercept messages exposes himself to legal risks. But certainly inmates'mail is not delivered personally by the postman.
    – SJuan76
    Sep 16 at 21:53
  • 9
    The story is just motivation for a point I tried making. The real question is how the mail became such a serious thing in the US
    – Neil Meyer
    Sep 17 at 7:28
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    @NeilMeyer It's not really an answer but it might help to know that the our mail service predates the founding of the US by more than a hundred years. The first post office here is from 1639. I'd imagine that mail was particularly important when you lived in a colony separated from your homeland by an ocean. After the US was created, Benjamin Franklin was the first postmaster and he was a huge influence of everything afterwards. Sep 17 at 13:41
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    @SJuan76 Yeah. Time to mail in the proverbial file or crowbar. No need to bake it into a cake anymore. Just give it to the postman and he'll walk it straight past security for you. Sep 17 at 14:03
48

Secrecy of correspondence isn't unique to the US. It is actually a fundamental right in many European countries (in Germany, it eg goes back to 1690, in France to 1742, and it was also part of the constitution of the USSR).

While the US doesn't have a direct equivalent in its constitution, the supreme court ruled that privacy of the letter still exists, based on the fourth amendment (which prohibits unreasonable search and seizures). Some exceptions may apply though (especially with regard to newer forms of communications, such as electronic mail).

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    This explains why nobody should be able to read your mail but not why you should count on being able to receive it. Sep 17 at 3:50
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    US post office is an institution literally mentioned by name in US constitution. It wouldn't be able to do its job if everyone and their uncle was allowed to tamper with it and prevent it. Basically, the founding fathers thought it was important (and people at the time agreed, presumably) so IT IS IMPORTANT even today. The only job of post office is to deliver mail and parcels, e.g deliver post.
    – jo1storm
    Sep 17 at 13:48
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    To add to @jo1storm's comment, it's worth noting it's in the original U.s> constitution without needing to be added by amendments. which is notable because the First Amendment was about Freedom of Speech and the Press. Sep 18 at 0:28
  • 1
    @RossMillikan Can’t speak for other countries but in the US you can’t count on receiving your mail. Certainly if you move sometimes mail doesn’t get forwarded, sometimes mail is lost or damaged, etc. Currently USPS is in financial trouble and that just makes things worse. Sep 18 at 7:44
  • That article on Medium seems odd. It says that the U.S. Constitution doesn't contain a protection for privacy of correspondence and then cites the portion of the Constitution that explicitly provides exactly that. The Supreme Court ruled that the privacy of the letter exists because the Fourth Amendment explicitly states that it does, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated."
    – reirab
    Sep 19 at 3:27
31

The US constitution provides for few national enterprises: A military, a mint, a justice system, and a post office.

This is in contrast to most governments in Europe which have extensive public sectors encompassing education and health, and sometimes energy, food, construction and other industries.

Unlike most other activities, the post is protected by the national government and explicitly established in the constitution. It is this special status that creates special rights for the mail and creates the mail as a special cultural institution in the USA.

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    Do European countries generally establish those extensive public sectors in their constitution? If not, isn't that much like the US which also has federal agencies for health, energy, food, etc. without constitutional codification? Nevertheless, you're probably right that having the Postal Clause in the US constitution is significant and possibly unique to the US.
    – JJJ
    Sep 16 at 20:06
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    @JJJ Not sure about the whole sectors but at least a few of them contain something of the sorts of "right for an education/health" from which the (generally) free education/health services follow.
    – Dan M.
    Sep 17 at 13:00
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    It's worth noting that some European countries have privatized their postal services. For example the post office in Germany was privatized in the 1990s and is now Deutsche Post DHL Group. It's the largest courier company in the world (they own DHL and Airborne Express). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deutsche_Post
    – Flydog57
    Sep 17 at 15:46
  • 1
    @JJJ: The US does a lot of stuff at the state level, which is (relatively) uncommon in Europe.
    – Kevin
    Sep 17 at 16:37
  • 8
    @JJJ there's a difference between a government agency that regulates a sector and one that provides a service. The FDA does not treat patients or grow food. The USPS actually delivers mail.
    – Rad80
    Sep 17 at 20:19
10

The story about the prison is suspect to me. Depending on the security level of the prison, inmates’ internet usage, phone calls, and mail are routinely monitored and inspected. Prisoners do not have a right to or expectation of privacy; that’s a right they forfeited when they were convicted of their crimes. So there must be more to that story than you know.

Outside of prison, your mail is private correspondence with another person and is protected like any other privacy right would be. You could no more open someone else’s mail than you could eavesdrop on their phone calls. The government likewise would need a legal warrant to open a person’s mail.

As for the mailbox thing, nobody would get 20 years for destroying a mailbox. That’s misdemeanor vandalism at worst. That being said, a mailbox is considered U.S. government property, so vandalizing one or tampering with the contents inside is a federal crime (as opposed to a state or local crime). Mail fraud CAN potentially get you up to 20 years in prison, but it would have to be some very serious criminal activity indeed.

In short, the U.S. Postal Service is not some sacred institution that Americans are particularly serious about. Quite to the contrary, many Americans regard the it as a typical example of a bloated, expensive, inefficient government bureaucracy that fails to deliver (pun intended). That’s the whole reason why companies like UPS, FedEx, DHL, and other courier services are able to make a profit while often being a more expensive option. People trust them more.

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    It's not misdemeanor vandalism; it's a federal felony. The maximum sentence is three years, however, not 20. And a personal mailbox is not federal property; that's a widely held misconception.
    – phoog
    Sep 17 at 7:19
  • 2
    People trust them more. I'd say not "trust" in the sense of "believe they are honest" but simply UPS, FedEx (air, ground not so much) and others are simply more reliable. USPS is (nominally) as reliable as UPS, FedEx, etc. for overnight deliveries (which cost a lot with any of the services, including USPS). But if you are within a certain distance, UPS (and others to a degree, but not normally USPS) will pretty much guarantee delivery in 1, 2, 3 days etc. except for extreme weather events or other (rare) situations. With USPS Parcel Post or even First Class mail, it seems to be "whenever". Sep 17 at 22:09
10

Postal services have always been sacred in the US, even before the actual founding of the Union. Before the time of the Revolutionary War, many colonists relied on the British postal service, which was manipulated by the monarchy to prevent colonists from organizing.

Naturally, the founders were concerned with civilian right to organize against a tyrannical government, so it was one of their top priorities when forming the US government.

If you read historical accounts of the American Revolution, you might notice a seemingly unnatural reverence for the postal service. You need to remember that it was essentially the only way people could communicate over distance. If you could not rely on the post, it became difficult to do business, connect with relations outside your city, learn about current events, or organize a revolution.

Today, we have many alternatives to the postal service that make it somewhat less relevant, but I believe a lot of the anger over censorship in other media stems from similar feelings to postal censorship in the 1700s. The founders created the postal service so that anyone could communicate with whoever they wished, even if they had powerful enemies.

5

Mailboxes are very vulnerable, usually unattended and often not next to the house. Since it is so easy to tamper with someone's mail, and difficult to enforce, the penalty has to be very high to actually deter people. This is the same logic as the $1000 fines for littering.

So while the high penalties might look like they mean "mail appears to be a sacred right", it may be that they are just being set at the level needed to serve as an actual deterrent.

-2

Keeping in mind that most of these laws were established before airplanes and the internet, even before the telegraph, it seems the main reason is military relevance.

If the enemy can interrupt your communications, it is much easier to launch a surprise attack, as nearby bases can't immediately warn you. For the same reason, Germany built a highway system in the run-up to WW2: So the tanks could advance more quickly. Fortunately for everyone, it was the enemy tanks that were able to advance more quickly in the end.

The US still has the concept of electoral delegates, because the country was so large that, by the time the person carrying the election results for a federal election from one state arrived in the capital, the situation may have changed. So they got permission to modify a result if needed.

All the large empires of history were based on communications networks. Post coaches, horse messengers, semaphores ...

It seems logical to me that, just like the US protect vital infrastructure from being sold to foreign countries, the postal service would be protected as well.

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    – Community Bot
    Sep 17 at 12:43
  • 3
    How much does military communication depend on the public postal service? I doubt it ever did very much, so this doesn't seem very likely.
    – Barmar
    Sep 17 at 14:25
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    And even if it did, why would that extend to a public right?
    – Barmar
    Sep 17 at 14:25
  • 1
    Close, but wrong. Try economy instead of military. Reliable private communication is a godsend for the economy for many reasons. You might be confusing this with Ghengis Khan's postal service that served both the military and the economy
    – Peter
    Sep 17 at 22:10

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