Brief Fact Summary. Bartnicki (P) and Kane (P) were union representatives whose cell phone conversation was illegally intercepted and recorded at a time when collective-bargaining negotiations were going on, in which they were involved. Vopper (D) was a radio commentator who played a tape of the conversation between the two unionists on his radio show in connection with his news story featuring the negotiated settlement. Bartnicki (P) and Kane (P) filed for damages, one ground being that Vopper (D) with others used the tape on public media despite knowing or having reasonable grounds to know that the tape was of an illegally tapped conversation. Vopper (D) claimed that his disclosure was protected under the freedom of speech guaranteed under the First Amendment.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. The anti-wiretapping laws make it illegal to disclose the content of a conversation which was itself illegally intercepted. However, if these provisions are made to apply to the disclosure of information which has been obtained in a legal way from the party which intercepted the conversation, and if the information relates to some matter of public concern, the said provisions violate the First Amendment.
Issue. Do the wiretapping laws which proscribe disclosure of material obtained by unlawfully tapping communications violate the First Amendment, if used to conceal information which has been obtained by legal means from the intercepting party, and when such information is related to public concern?
Held. (Stevens, J.) Yes. The provisions of federal wiretapping laws are in violation of the First Amendment if used to suppress the disclosure of information obtained legally from a party which illegally intercepted a conversation, and if the information is such as concerns the public. Since the Court has no doubt of Vopper’s statement that he was not involved in nor had knowledge of the illegal interception of the conversation, that he came into possession of the intercepted communication lawfully, and that the disclosed information was of public concern. In such a case, it would be a violation of the constitution if a state were to make a citizen liable for the publication of true information. The issue to be determined here is whether a person who has obtained access to some material in a legal manner from one who has procured it through illegal means should be punished for publishing the material. The wiretapping legislation has as its first intent the removing of incentive for any interception of private communication. This is not served if an innocent disclosure of public information obtained legally is punished under that law. The person who performed the illegal act is the one who merits punishment, and only in such a case will the punishment have the desired deterrent action. The second intent the government intends to serve through this law is to prevent harm from ensuing to the persons whose private communications were thus illegally intercepted. This is a much stronger motive, as it is an important essential of government to ensure privacy of comversation. In this suit, however, the maintenance of privacy is of less concern than the disclosure of matters which concern the public. When a person involves himself in public affairs, he invites some loss of privacy as a matter of course. This material of public concern cannot be removed from the protection afforded by the First Amendment because some unknown person acted illegally in obtaining the tapped conversation. The decision is affirmed.
Contrary to the Government's assertion that the invasion of privacy is over and done with, to compel the testimony of these witnesses compounds the statutorily proscribed invasion of their privacy by adding to the injury of the interception the insult of compelled disclosure.View Full Point of Law
Concurrence. (Breyer, J.) The Court decision in this case is intended to be applicable only to the facts of this specific case, and not to extrapolate beyond this situation. The facts here considered are that,first, the broadcasters were within the law up to the time of their publishing the information, and that secondly, the information disclosed involved a threat of possible physical harm to others, which is a matter of public concern.
Discussion. The issue in this case led to a decision which expanded the legal precedent in this area. Until this time the Court’s holding was that under the First Amendment, a person could not be held liable for publishing private facts provided the information was legally obtained from public records. The only justification for liability would be a governmental interest of highest magnitude. This present case involved communication of a matter which could be regarded as public in some aspects so that it could not be treated as a purely private matter, which might have rendered the publisher liable.