Brief Fact Summary. In August 1971, the Appellee, Cohn’s (Appellee), 17-year-old daughter was the victim of a rape and did not survive the incident. Six youths were soon indicted for the murder and rape. Although there was substantial press coverage of the crime and subsequent developments, the identity was not disclosed pending trial because Georgia state statute made it a misdemeanor to publish or broadcast the name or identity of a rape victim.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. The First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution (Constitution) will not allow exposing the press to liability for truthfully publishing information released to the public in official court records.
In the course of the trial of the matter, the Appellant No. 1, Wassell (Appellant No. 1), a reporter, learned the name of the victim from an examination of the indictments. Later, Appellant No. 1 broadcast over station WSB-TV, a television station owned by the Appellant No. 2, Cox Broadcasting Corp. (Appellant), a news report of the proceedings. The report named the victim and was repeated the following day. The Georgia Supreme Court rejected Appellants’ contention that the victim’s name was a matter of public interest and, thus, could be published with impunity. However, the court also remanded to enable the jury to determine whether the public disclosure of the victim’s name actually invaded Appellee’s zone of privacy and whether the invasion was done with willful or negligent disregard for the fact that reasonable men would find the invasion highly offensive.
Issue. Whether, consistently with the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution, a State may extend a cause of action for damages for invasion of privacy caused by the publication of the name of a deceased rape victim, which was publicly revealed in connection with the prosecution of the crime?
Held. Once true information is disclosed in public court documents, open to public inspection, the press cannot be sanctioned for publishing it.
Discussion. Points of Law - for Law School Success
We are reluctant to embark on a course that would make public records generally available to the media but forbid their publication if offensive to the sensibilities of the supposed reasonable man. View Full Point of Law
The majority’s focus was upon the very fact that the indictments, from which Appellant No. 1 obtained his information, had previously been made public. The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) discussed the role of the press in this context and noted that where information has been made public, the State had previously made the decision that the information was of public interest. If the state wanted to maintain privacy in this action, it should have taken steps to avoid public documentation.