Cabinet Noir


Cabinet noir (French for ‘black room’) was the name given in France to the office where the letters of suspected persons were opened and read by public officials before being forwarded to their destination. This practice had been in use since the establishment of posts, and was frequently used by the ministers of Louis XIII and Louis XIV; but it was not until the reign of Louis XV that a separate office for this purpose was created. Although declaimed against at the time of the French Revolution, it was used both by the revolutionary leaders and by Napoleon.

By 1911 the cabinet noir had disappeared, but that the right to open letters in cases of emergency still appeared to be retained by the French government; and a similar right was occasionally exercised in England under the direction of a Secretary of State. In England this power was frequently employed during the 18th century and was confirmed by the Post Office Act 1837.

Such postal censorship became common during World War I. Governments claimed that the total war which was waged required such censorship to preserve the civilian population’s morale from heart-breaking news up from the front. Whatever the justification, this meant that not a single letter sent from a soldier to his family escaped previous reading by a government official, destroying any notion of privacy or of secrecy of correspondence. Post censorship was retained during the interwar period and afterwards, but without being done on such a massive scale.

The opening of international mail outgoing and incoming from the United States by U.S. Customs under a ‘2002 trade act,’ occurs under the border search exception to the Fourth Amendment. There has been some criticism of this practice (including allegations that it adds to the expense of conducting the Postal Service and can thus have an impact on postage rates), of which the USPS apparently informed Congress about the potential problems before passage of the legislation. However, this criticism may be tempered by the fact that the act prohibits agents searching for contraband from reading mail incidentally included in the package or envelope including it, or allowing others to read it.

The Intelligence Authorization Act of 2004 has also been characterised as unconstitutionally permitting the opening of domestic mail.

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