Brief Fact Summary.
The Florida Star published a one-paragraph article on B.J.F.’s robbery and rape and included her full name. The newspaper got the information lawfully from an inadvertent mistake by the police department when it prepared a report with B.J.F.’s full name and placed the report in its publicly accessible press room. The publication of B.J.F.’s full name was in violation of The Florida Star’s own policy not to publish the names of sexual offense victims.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
If a newspaper lawfully obtains truthful information about a matter of public significance, then state officials may not constitutionally punish publication of the information, absent a need to further a narrowly tailored state interest of the highest order.
As the Supreme Court has recognized, there is tension between the right which the First Amendment accords to free press, on the one hand, and the protections which various statutes and common-law doctrines accord to personal privacy against the publication of truthful information, on the other.View Full Point of Law
The Florida Star is a newspaper that circulates about 18,000 copies per week. A regular feature in the newspaper is its “Police Reports” section, which briefly lists local criminal incidents under police investigation.
After B.J.F. reported her robbery and sexual assault by an unknown assailant, the police department prepared a report with B.J.F.’s full name and placed the report in its publicly accessible press room.
A Florida Star reporter-trainee copied the report verbatim and prepared a one-paragraph article about the crime under its “Robbery” tab, including B.J.F.’s full name. The publication of B.J.F.’s full name was in violation of The Florida Star’s own policy not to publish the names of sexual offense victims.
B.J.F. sued the newspaper and police department.
Under the First Amendment, is it proper to hold The Florida Star civilly liable for publishing the name of a rape victim which The Florida Star had obtained from a publicly released police report?
No. Under the First Amendment, it is not proper to hold The Florida Star civilly liable for publishing the name of a rape victim which The Florida Star had obtained from a publicly released police report.
The majority seems to ignore that Florida law forbid disclosure of a rape victim’s name.
Here, the government made a mistake in release B.J.F.’s name. Is it so hard to ask the press to respect simple standards of decency in this event of an inadvertent mistake and refrain from publishing a victim’s name, address, and/or phone number?
Concerns for a free press should be balanced against the rival interest of a civilized and humane society.
While it is true that Section 794.03 did not protect against malicious gossips, it is still fair to see that Florida was trying to prevent the widespread dissemination of rape victims’ names. There was no public interest in identifying B.J.F.’s name and no public interest in immunizing The Florida Star in this rare case where the State failed to protect a victim’s privacy.
The third consideration (i.e., deficiency of Section 794.03) is sufficient grounds by itself for the Court’s holding.
Press freedom and privacy rights are both plainly rooted as things that our society cares deeply about.
To the extent that the government holds sensitive information, the government should do a better job of keeping that sensitive information private, such that a newspaper could not lawfully obtain the information in the first place. For example, the government could classify certain information, establish and enforce procedures ensuring its redacted release, and extend a damages remedy against the government or its officials where the government’s mishandling of sensitive information leads to its dissemination.
B.J.F.’s name was obtained from courthouse records that were open to public inspection and prosecution. The coverage of her robbery and sexual assault was accurate, and The Florida Star lawfully obtained her name.
Punishing the press for disseminating information already publicly available is unlikely to advance a meaningful public interest. Instead, punishment would more likely result in a chilling effect on the press by forcing the press to sift through government reports and decide which material would likely be unlawful to publish.
The Court did not rule out the possibility of imposing civil sanctions for publication of the name of a rape victim as necessary to advance an important state interest, but there are three independent reasons why doing so in this case allegedly would be extreme.