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Bartnicki v. Vopper

Citation. 532 U.S. 514 (2001)
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Brief Fact Summary.

The respondents filed complaint for damages against the radio broadcasters and their local citizen informant for intercepting their conversation over the phone and airing it through the radio.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The press shall have the right to publish information of great public concern obtained from documents stolen by a third party.


During the collective bargaining negotiation with the school board, Bartnicki, the chief negotiator for Pennsylvania State Education Association, had a heated conversation regarding the school board with the president of the local union. The president threatened Bartnicki over the phone to listen to his demand. The call was secretly intercepted by a private individual, who then turned over the tape to a local radio talk show host, who then played the tape on air.


Where the publisher of information has obtained the information lawfully but from a source who has obtained it unlawfully, may the government punish the ensuing publication of that information based on the defect in a chain?


No, while the government’s interests in removing an incentive for parties to intercept private conversations and minimizing the harm to persons whose conversations have been illegally intercepted adequately justify the prohibition against the interceptor’s own use of information, punishing disclosures of lawfully obtained information of public interest by a party not involved in the initial illegality is not an acceptable means of serving the interests.


Justice Rehnquist

The statute can effectively deter an illegal act that is difficult to police by preventing the wrongdoer from enjoying the fruits of the crime. The statutes also protect the important interests of deterring clandestine invasions of privacy and preventing the involuntary broadcast of private communications. The fundamental interest in individual privacy includes the right to be free from surreptitious eavesdropping on our telephone conversations.


Justice Breyer

The proper inquiry the Court should examine is whether the statutes – that seek to punish those who intentionally disclose contents of any wire, oral or electronic communication to others – strike a reasonable balance between their speech-restricting and speech-enhancing consequences. The statutory restrictions directly enhance private speech by ensuring the privacy of telephone conversations much as a trespass statute ensures privacy within the home. When looked as a whole, however, the statutes disproportionately interfere with media freedom. The broadcasters merely published information another had previously obtained and the speakers had no legitimate interest in maintaining the privacy while talking.


Privacy concerns give way when balanced against the interest in publishing matters of public importance. The fact that a third, unknown party has done an illegal conduct is not sufficient to remove the First Amendment shield from speech about a matter of public concern. The months of negotiations over the proper level of salary for teachers at the Pennsylvania high school were a matter of public concern and respondents were engaged in debate about that concern. Such debate is under constitutional protection. Thus, where the publisher of information has obtained the information lawfully but from a source who has obtained it unlawfully, the government may punish the ensuing publication of that information based on the defect in a chain.

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