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The Florida Star v. B.J.F

    Brief Fact Summary. Appellee B.J.F. reported a robbery and sexual assault to the Duval County, Florida sheriff’s department. The sheriff’s department placed a copy of Apellee’s police report where it was obtained and later published by a local newspaper, The Florida Star (Appellant). It was against Appellant’s internal policy and Florida Statute to place the name of victims of sexual assault in its newspaper. But, Appellee’s full name accidentally appeared in the issue that contained her police report. She filed suit where she won punitive and compensatory damages, Appellant appealed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. If a newspaper lawfully obtains truthful information about a matter of public significance then state officials may not constitutionally punish publication of the information, absent a need to further a state interest of the highest order.

    Facts. On October 20, 1983, Appellee reported a robbery and sexual assault in the city of Jacksonville, Florida. The Sheriff released a copy of the police report to the pressroom, where a reporter-trainee of Appellant obtained it. Appellant is a weekly newspaper in Jacksonville, Florida, that regularly reports the police reports for the week. The name of Appellee was published in the newspaper, despite its internal policy of not publishing the names of sexual offense victims. By publishing the full name of Appellee, Appellant also violated Florida Stat. Section 794.03 (1987), which makes it unlawful to print, publish or broadcast in any instrument of mass communication the name of the victim of a sexual offense. Appellee then filed suit against the sheriff’s department and Appellant, alleging the parties negligently violated the statute. Appellee was awarded compensatory and punitive damage by the Florida trial court, and affirmed by the Court of Appeals. The Florida Supreme Court de
    nied review, and thus it reached the United States Supreme Court.

    Issue.
    Does imposing damages on appellant for publishing Appellee’s name violate the First Amendment?
    Whether imposing liability on Appellant pursuant to section 794.03 serves a need to further a state interest of the highest order?

    Held. Yes to (a) and No to (b). Reversed.
    If a newspaper lawfully obtains truthful information about a matter of public significance then state officials may not constitutionally punish publication of the information, absent a need to further a state interest of the highest order. This is an adequate standard because of the three considerations that must be made.
    First, the newspaper must lawfully obtain the information. Second, It does not advance the interests of the state to punish the press for information, which is already public. Thirdly, it is self-censorship by the state to allow the media to be punished for publishing certain truthful information.
    Although it is undeniable that the identity of a rape victim is a highly significant interest, there is not enough to convince the Court that there is a need within the meaning of the standard to take the extreme step of punishing those who accidentally publish the names of these victims.
    Without more careful and inclusive precautions against alternate forms of dissemination, the Court cannot conclude that Florida’s selective ban on publication by the mass media satisfactorily accomplished its stated purpose. Therefore, because of the limitation of the statute at hand, there is no state interest of the highest order preventing dissemination and imposing liability against Appellant in this case.

    Dissent. The dissent feels that the outcome of this case is harsh. Neither the state’s dissemination of Appellee’s name, nor the standard of liability imposed here, nor the under inclusiveness of Florida’s law require setting aside the verdict of the Appellee. The dissent also disagrees that only a state interest of the highest order permits the state to penalize the publication of truthful information, and that protecting the name of a rape victim is not among the interest of the highest order, the Court obliterates the right to privacy. The dissent feels that although the right to privacy is not absolute, it should be balanced with the public’s right to know to strike the perfect balance.
    Concurrence. It is enough to just determine whether the speech is truthful. No other analysis is necessary. The law cannot justify a restriction on truthful speech, and truthful speech is different from gossip, which can be restricted by law.

    Discussion. This case stands for the idea that a State cannot, in accordance with the First Amendment, impose liability on a small set of the media when it obtains truthful information. It is important to understand the three prong test this case provides as to how publishing such sensitive, yet truthful information can be published yet avoid liability. (1) The information must be lawfully obtained. (2) The information must be truthful. (3) Liability can only be imposed when narrowly tailored to a state interest of the highest order. It is important to use this test to successfully analyze any fact pattern with similar facts to this case. Difference in any one of these areas can lead to a different result. Finally, it is important to note the dissent’s argument concerning the right to privacy, and the balancing test the dissent provides. It leaves one to consider that since the newspaper and the state both had policies against the disclosure of this information, do they not believe t
    hat the right to privacy in this case outweighs the public’s right to know, and that leaves us to wonder what rises to the level of a state interest of the highest order.


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