The Constitution is aimed primarily at regulating the conduct of government. This means that, for the most part, the constitutional rights contained in the first nine amendments and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments are held solely against governments and their officers. The main exception is the Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibits “involuntary servitude.” The Supreme Court has held that this provision forbids both states and private persons from practicing slavery. It is a constitutional violation for a private citizen to enslave another whether or not the state has authorized slavery. In most instances, the actions of private individuals with no state involvement do not violate anyone’s constitutional rights. The rule is that, in the absence of some act by a government or its officers, no constitutional violation takes place. In the jargon of constitutional law, this is called the “state action” requirement.
This rule is easy to apply in cases where the government acts directly to injure someone and in cases where an ordinary person acts alone. In the former situation a court may find a constitutional violation, while in the latter it may not (though of course private actors are always subject to other legal requirements). But the circumstances are not always so clear. Here we address situations in which the plaintiff complains of an injury that was produced by some interaction between the state and a private individual. We deliberately choose the vague word “interaction” to describe the cases because there are many variations on the general theme and no precise rule for separating those arrangements that must satisfy constitutional requirements from those that do not.