The defendant newspaper published the name of a rape victim which it had obtained from a publicly released police report, despite a Florida law prohibiting such action.
If a newspaper lawfully obtains truthful information about a matter of public significance, then state officials may not punish publication of that information without a highly compelling reason.
The plaintiff was a victim of rape and robbery committed by an unknown man, which she reported to the county sheriff’s department. The department’s report contained her name and was put in the press room, where it was seen by a reporter from the defendant paper. Despite a Florida law and the defendant’s policy against publishing names of victims, the paper published a story in the “Police Reports” section that named the plaintiff as the victim. This caused emotional harm to the plaintiff, stemming in part from phone calls to her mother from someone claiming to be the perpetrator.
Does imposing damages on the defendant for publishing the plaintiff’s name violate the First Amendment?
Yes. The lower court decision is reversed.
Justice White and his colleagues believe that this decision is patently unfair to a victim who suffered in the aftermath of a horrible ordeal due to the conduct of the defendant. He thinks that the information provided by the government in this case—the plaintiff’s name—was not without qualification as the majority believes, as the reporter admitted that she knew she it to be unlawful to publish the victim’s name. Ultimately, Justice White believes that it is not too much to ask of the press to not publish the name, address, or phone number of a rape victim in a widely read newspaper.
This case deals with a conflict between First Amendment freedom of the press and an individual’s right to privacy. The Court thinks it goes too far to broadly say that truthful publication may never be punished due to the First Amendment. Rather, the Court decides that if a newspaper lawfully obtains truthful information about a matter of public significance, then state officials may not punish publication of that information without a highly compelling reason. While the interests of the victim in this case are compelling, they do not meet the standard to overcome freedom of the press. The defendant obtained the information from the government itself—it was the mistake of the government, not the actions of the defendant, at greater issue here. The Court also takes issue with the negligence per se standard in the Florida statute, identifying instead a need for a case-by-case standard of review. Finally, the Court finds the statute to be vague about whether it is actually serving the interests of the plaintiff in this case due to the lack of definition for “mass communication.”