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Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn

    Citation. 420 U.S. 469, 95 S. Ct. 1029, 43 L. Ed. 2d 328, 1975 U.S.

    Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff sued Defendant for invasion of privacy for broadcasting the name of his deceased daughter, which was made available for inspection in the courtroom.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The prevailing law of invasion of privacy generally recognizes that the interests in privacy fade when the information involved already appears on the public record.


    Facts. Cohn’s (Plaintiff) 17-year-old daughter was the victim of a rape and was killed. The identity of Plaintiff’s daughter was not disclosed pending trial. Wassell, a reporter covering the incident for his employer, learned the name of Plaintiff’s daughter from an examination of the indictments, which were made available for inspection in the courtroom. Wassell broadcasted the name of Plaintiff’s daughter on a television station owned by Cox Broadcasting Corp. (Defendant). Plaintiff brought an action for money damages against Defendant, claiming that his right to privacy had been invaded by the television broadcast giving the name of his deceased daughter.

    Issue. May a state prohibit the publication of sensitive, truthful information that is held open to the public and available for inspection?

    Held. No. Judgment reversed.
    * The tort of public disclosure protects the right to be free from unwanted publicity about private affairs, which, although wholly true, would be offensive to a person of ordinary sensibilities.
    * Great responsibility is placed upon the news media to report fully and accurately the proceedings of government and official, records and documents open to the public. Plaintiff claimed that the efforts of the press have infringed his right to privacy by broadcasting to the world the fact that his daughter was a rape victim. However, the incident is a legitimate concern to the public and consequently falls within the responsibility of the press to report the operations of the government.
    * The Restatement provides that there is no liability when the information in dispute is contained in public records. The prevailing law of invasion of privacy generally recognizes that the interests in privacy fade when the information involved already appears on the public record. By placing the information in the public domain on official court records, the State must be presumed to have concluded that the public interest was thereby being served.
    * 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. Such a rule would make it very difficult for the press to inform their readers about the public business and yet stay within the law.

    Dissent. (J. Rehnquist) There is no final judgment in the case from which an appeal could be taken to the Supreme Court.
    Concurrence. (J. Powell) Gertz constitutionally requires that truth by an absolute defense in defamation actions brought be either public or private persons.

    Discussion. In this case, Plaintiff’s privacy was not invaded because Defendant did not disclose anything that wasn’t readily available to the public. Disclosure of facts available in the public record is not protected.

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