Brief Fact Summary. Â True facts about a child’s adoption were published in two newspaper articles.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Claims for invasion of privacy by publication of true but â€œprivateâ€ facts are not recognized in North Carolina.
Issue. Whether a claim for tortious invasion of privacy by truthful public disclosure of private facts is cognizable under North Carolina law?
Â No, a “private facts” invasion of privacy tort cannot be justified when it punishes defendants for broadly proclaiming the truth by speech or writing.
Discussion. This was an issue of first impression for the court concerning the private facts branch of the invasion of privacy tort. Plaintiffs also stipulated that all facts in the articles were true and accurate. Under the 2nd Restatement of Torts, liability under the invasion of privacy tort occurs where the matter publicized is a kind that a) would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and b) is not of legitimate concern to the public. Consequently, four elements must be proven to be entitled to relief: 1) publicity; 2) private facts; 3) offensiveness; and 4) absence of legitimate public concern. To decide what is legitimate public concern, community mores must be analyzed, and the line is drawn where the information ceases to be the giving of information to which the public is entitled, and instead, becomes a prying into private lives, such that a reasonable member of the public with decent standards would say that he has no concern.
The court has failed to recognize â€œfalse lightâ€ claims and now holds that publication of true but private facts shall not trigger invasions of privacy, because such issues are too intertwined with 1st Amendment rights and allowing the claim would add additional tension to the law of torts and would be of little practical value to anyone. Moreover, relying on the US Supreme Court decision in Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, the court notes that the Supreme Court has also declined to address whether truthful publications may ever be subjected to civil or criminal liability consistent with the 1st and 14th Amendments.
Here, because this is an action between two non-governmental parties, we do not have a tension between two constitutional interests, but instead we must balance state tort law with constraints of the Constitution (1st Amt.). As the constitutional right of privacy is not triggered here, and given that even false statements that cause harm are often shielded from liability based on 1st Amendment concerns (see Hustler v. Falwell), it is reasonable to conclude that publication of true statements should be entitled to no less protection than that guaranteed of certain false statements.
Concurrence: Justice Frye does not join in the opinion that the claim for relief for invasion of privacy by public disclosure of true but private facts should be rejected. He believes that the media should not be given license to pry into the private lives of ordinary citizens and spread highly offensive but private facts without any degree of accountability. We must apply a â€œnewsworthinessâ€ or â€œpublic interestâ€ standard to determine what publications are privileged and what publications are actionableâ€”this way, neither the right of privacy nor the right of freedom of press is absolute.
If the 2nd Restatement standard is adopted, then the public concern element can be an issue of law for the trial court and not put in the hands of the jury (because publishers were concerned that juries would turn into lay sensors).
Applying such standard to the facts at hand, the return of Plaintiff’s birth mother to search for her daughter would have been deemed a matter of legitimate public.