Citation. 491 U.S. 524, 109 S.Ct. 2603, 105 L.Ed.2d 443 (1989).
Brief Fact Summary.
Plaintiff’s name was published in Defendant’s newspaper following a sexual assault. Plaintiff brought suit, alleging Defendant violated Section 794.03 of the state law.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
Where a newspaper publishes truthful information which it has lawfully obtained, punishment may be lawfully imposed, if at all, only when narrowly tailored to a state interest of the highest order.
Plaintiff reported to the sheriff’s department that she had been robbed and sexually assaulted by an unknown assailant. The department prepared a report, which identified B.J.F. by her full name and placed the report in its press room. One of the Defendant’s trainees copied the report verbatim, including B.J.F.’s full name and it was published several days later. Plaintiff sued, arguing Defendant negligently violated Section 794.03.
Whether a news publication can be held civil liable under the First Amendment for publishing the name of a rape victim that has been obtained from a publicly released police report.
No. A news publication cannot be held civil liable under the First Amendment for publishing the name of a rape victim that has been obtained from a publicly released police report.
If the First Amendment prohibits plaintiffs such as B.J.F from recovering from the fact that she was raped, I doubt that there remain any “private facts” which persons may assume will not be published. Of course the right to privacy is not absolute. But the majority is according too little weight to Plaintiff’s side of the equation and too much on the other.
There is tension between the free press under the First Amendment and individual rights to personal privacy. So long as the information is lawfully obtained, the government retains ample means of safeguarding significant interests. But when the information has been made publicly available, it is highly anomalous to sanction persons other than the source of its release.
Applied here, Plaintiff’s name was obtained from courthouse records that were open to the public. Defendant lawfully obtained her name. Punishment would result in a chilling effect on the press.
Section 794.03 requires no case-by-case findings. The statute is under-inclusive. Today’s holding is limited, however. Truthful publication is not automatically constitutionally protected. Judgement reversed.