B.J.F. reported her rape to the Florida sheriff’s department. The Florida Star obtained a copy of the police report when it was left in the sheriff’s pressroom and a reporter published B.J.F’s full name in reporting on the rape that occurred. B.J.F. sued.
The First Amendment precludes a newspaper from being held civilly liable under state tort law for publishing the name of a rape victim if the information was lawfully-obtained and truthful.
A reporter for the Florida Star wrote and printed an article about B.J.F.’s rape, including her full name. The reporter obtained all of his information, including the victim’s name, from the police report. The police department did not restrict access to the pressroom or police reports, but there were several signs in the area instructing not to print victim’s names. The newspaper also had a policy of not printing the full names of victims. After the article ran, B.J.F. and her family received several threatening phone calls, and B.J.F sought mental counseling and police protection. B.J.F sued, claiming emotional distress.
May a state impose criminal and civil sanctions on a newspaper for printing lawfully-obtained truthful information found in government records?
It is disputed whether the newspaper obtained B.J.F.’s name lawfully because signs in the press room of the Sheriff’s Department made clear the ban on publication of rape victims’ names. Further, the newspaper reporter admitted that he knew dissemination of rape victims’ names was prohibited.
The civil damages imposed on Florida Star violated the First Amendment because the information was lawfully-obtained and truthful. Because the newspaper had obtained B.J.F’s name from a police report left in the pressroom of the Sheriff’s Department, the truthful information on a newsworthy event had been obtained lawfully