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Invasions of Privacy and the First Amendment

The First Amendment's protections for free speech and the press are considered a bedrock of American democracy. But at times, these rights appear to run contrary to individual privacy rights. At what point does accurate reporting go too far? What information is the media entitled to? These questions and more have been put before the Supreme Court.

What the First Amendment Says

“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;"

Privacy Rights Under the First Amendment

United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation

Governmental power to protect the privacy interests of its citizens by penalizing publication or authorizing causes of action for publication implicates directly First Amendment rights. Privacy is a concept composed of several aspects.1 As a tort concept, it embraces at least four branches of protected interests: protection from unreasonable intrusion upon one's seclusion, from appropriation of one's name or likeness, from unreasonable publicity given to one's private life, and from publicity which unreasonably places one in a false light before the public.2

Although the Court has variously recognized valid governmental interests in extending protection to privacy,3 it has nevertheless interposed substantial free expression interests in the balance. Thus, in Time, Inc. v. Hill,4 the Times privilege was held to preclude recovery under a state privacy statute that permitted recovery for harm caused by exposure to public attention in any publication which contained factual inaccuracies, although not necessarily defamatory inaccuracies, in communications on matters of public interest. Since Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. held that the Times privilege did not limit the recovery of compensatory damages for defamation by private persons, the question arose whether Hill applies to all false-light cases or only such cases involving public officials or public figures.5 And, more important, Gertz left unresolved the issue whether the State may ever define and protect an area of privacy free from unwanted publicity in the press.6

In Cox Broadcasting v. Cohn, the Court declined to pass on the broad question, holding instead that the accurate publication of information obtained from public records is absolutely privileged. Thus, the state could not permit a civil recovery for invasion of privacy occasioned by the reporting of the name of a rape victim obtained from court records and from a proceeding in open court.7 Nevertheless, the Court in appearing to retreat from what had seemed to be settled principle, that truth is a constitutionally required defense in any defamation action, whether plaintiff be a public official, public figure, or private individual, may have preserved for itself the discretion to recognize a constitutionally permissible tort of invasion of privacy through publication of truthful information.8 But in recognition of the conflicting interests—in expression and in privacy—it is evident that the judicial process in this area will be cautious.

Continuing to adhere to limited principles that sweep no more broadly than the appropriate context of the instant case, the Court invalidated an award of damages against a newspaper for printing the name of a sexual assault victim lawfully obtained from a sheriff's department press release. The state was unable to demonstrate that imposing liability served a need to further a state interest of the highest order, since the same interest could have been served by the more limited means of self-regulation by the police, since the particular per se negligence statute precluded inquiry into the extent of privacy invasion (e.g., inquiry into whether the victim's identity was already widely known), and since the statute singled out mass communications media for liability rather than applying evenhandedly to anyone disclosing a victim's identity.9

Emotional Distress Tort Actions

In Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell,10 the Court applied the New York Times v. Sullivan standard to recovery of damages by public officials and public figures for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress. The case involved an advertisement parody portraying the plaintiff, described by the Court as a nationally known minister who has been active as a commentator on politics and public affairs, as stating that he lost his virginity during a drunken incestuous rendezvous with his mother in an outhouse.11 Affirming liability in this case, the Court believed, would subject political cartoonists and satirists to damage awards without any showing that their work falsely defamed its subject.12 A proffered outrageousness standard for distinguishing such parodies from more traditional political cartoons was rejected; although not doubting that the caricature of respondent is at best a distant cousin of some political cartoons and a rather poor relation at that, the Court explained that 'outrageousness' in the area of political and social discourse has an inherent subjectiveness about it which would allow a jury to impose liability on the basis of the jurors' tastes or views.13 Therefore, proof of intent to cause injury, the gravamen of the tort, is insufficient in the area of public debate about public figures. Additional proof that the publication contained a false statement of fact made with actual malice was necessary, the Court concluded, in order to give adequate 'breathing space' to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.14

The Court next considered whether an intentional infliction of emotional distress action could be brought by a father against public protestors who picketed the military funeral of his son, where the plaintiff was neither a public official nor a public figure. Based on the reasoning of Hustler Magazine, one might presume that the Times privilege would not extend to the intentional infliction of emotional distress upon a private citizen. However, in Snyder v. Phelps,15 the Court avoided addressing this issue, finding that where public protesters are addressing issues of public concern, the fact that such protests occurred in a setting likely to upset private individuals did not reduce the First Amendment protection of that speech. In Phelps, the congregation of the Westboro Baptist Church, based on the belief that God punishes the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in America's armed forces, had engaged in nearly 600 protests at funerals, mostly military. While it was admitted that the plaintiff had suffered emotional distress after a protest at his son's funeral, the Court declined to characterize the protests as directed at the father personally.16 Rather, considering the content, form, and context of that speech,17 the Court found that the dominant themes of the protest went to public concerns, and thus could not serve as the basis for a tort suit.18

Right of Publicity Tort Actions

In Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co.,19 the Court held unprotected by the First Amendment a broadcast of a video tape of the entire act of a human cannonball in the context of the performer's suit for damages against the company for having appropriated his act, thereby injuring his right to the publicity value of his performance. The Court emphasized two differences between the legal action permitted here and the legal actions found unprotected or not fully protected in defamation and other privacy-type suits. First, the interest sought to be protected was, rather than a party's right to his reputation and freedom from mental distress, the right of the performer to remuneration for putting on his act. Second, the other torts if permitted decreased the information that would be made available to the public, whereas permitting this tort action would have an impact only on who gets to do the publishing.20 In both respects, the tort action was analogous to patent and copyright laws in that both provide an economic incentive to persons to make the investment required to produce a performance of interest to the public.21

More on the First Amendment


1. See, e.g., William Prosser, Law of Torts 117 (4th ed. 1971); Prosser, Privacy, 48 Calif. L. Rev. 383 (1960); J. Thomas McCarthy, The Rights of Publicity and Privacy (1987); Thomas Emerson, The System of Freedom of Expression 544–61 (1970). Note that we do not have here the question of the protection of one's privacy from governmental invasion.

2. Restatement (Second), of Torts §§ 652A-652I (1977). These four branches were originally propounded in Prosser's 1960 article, incorporated in the Restatement, and now routinely accept[ed]. McCarthy, § 5.8[A].

3. Time, Inc. v. Hill, 385 U.S. 374, 383 n.7 (1967); and id. at 402, 404 (Justice Harlan, concurring in part and dissenting in part), 411, 412-15 (Justice Fortas dissenting); Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469, 487–89 (1975).

4.385 U.S. 374 (1967). See also Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing Co., 419 U.S. 245 (1974).

5.Cf. Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing Co., 419 U.S. 245, 250–51 (1974)Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469, 490 n.19 (1975).

6. Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469, 491 (1975).

7. More specifically, the information was obtained from judicial records which are maintained in connection with a public prosecution and which themselves are open to public inspection. 420 U.S. at 491. There was thus involved both the First Amendment and the traditional privilege of the press to report the events of judicial proceedings. Id. at 493, 494–96.

8. Thus, Justice White for the Court noted that the defense of truth is constitutionally required in suits by public officials or public figures. But [t]he Court has nevertheless carefully left open the question whether the First and Fourteenth Amendments require that truth be recognized as a defense in a defamatory action brought by a private person as distinguished from a public official or public figure. 420 U.S. at 490. If truth is not a constitutionally required defense, then it would be possible for the states to make truthful defamation of private individuals actionable and, more important, truthful reporting of matters that constitute invasions of privacy actionable. See Brasco v. Reader's Digest, 4 Cal.3d 520, 483 P.2d 34, 93 Cal. Rptr. 866 (1971); Commonwealth v. Wiseman, 356 Mass. 251, 249 N.E.2d 610 (1969)cert. denied, 398 U.S. 960 (1970). Concurring in Cohn, 420 U.S. at 497, Justice Powell contended that the question of truth as a constitutionally required defense was long settled in the affirmative and that Gertz itself, which he wrote, was explainable on no other basis. But he too would reserve the question of actionable invasions of privacy through truthful reporting. In some instances state actions that are denominated actions in defamation may in fact seek to protect citizens from injuries that are quite different from the wrongful damage to reputation flowing from false statements of fact. In such cases, the Constitution may permit a different balance. And, as today's opinion properly recognizes, causes of action grounded in a State's desire to protect privacy generally implicate interests that are distinct from those protected by defamation actions. 420 U.S. at 500.

9. The Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524 (1989). The Court left open the question whether, in cases where information has been acquired unlawfully by a newspaper or by a source, the government may ever punish not only the unlawful acquisition, but the ensuing publication as well. Id. at 535 n.8. In Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001), the Court held that a content-neutral statute prohibiting the publication of illegally intercepted communications (in this case a cell phone conversation) violates free speech where the person who publishes the material did not participate in the interception, and the communication concerns a public issue.

10. 485 U.S. 46 (1988).

11. 485 U.S. at 47, 48.

12. 485 U.S. at 53.

13. 485 U.S. at 55.

14. 485 U.S. at 53, 56.

15. 562 U.S. ___, No. 09-751, slip op. (March 2, 2011).

16. Signs displayed at the protest included the phrases God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11, America is Doomed, Don't Pray for the USA, Thank God for IEDs, Thank God for Dead Soldiers, Pope in Hell, Priests Rape Boys, God Hates Fags, You're Going to Hell, and God Hates You. Slip op. at 2.

17. Slip op. at 8 (citations omitted).

18. Justice Alito, in dissent, argued that statements made by the defendants on signs and on a website could have been reasonably interpreted as directed at the plaintiffs, and that even if public themes were a dominant theme at the protest, that this should not prevent a suit from being brought on those statements arguably directed at private individuals. Slip op. at 9–11 (Alito, J., dissenting).

19. 433 U.S. 562 (1977). The right of publicity tort is conceptually related to one of the privacy strands: appropriation of one's name or likeness for commercial purposes. Id. at 569–72. Justices Powell, Brennan, and Marshall dissented, finding the broadcast protected, id. at 579, and Justice Stevens dissented on other grounds. Id. at 582.

20. 433 U.S. at 573–74. Plaintiff was not seeking to bar the broadcast but rather to be paid for the value he lost through the broadcasting.

21. 433 U.S. at 576–78. This discussion is the closest the Court has come in considering how copyright laws in particular are to be reconciled with the First Amendment. The Court emphasizes that copyright laws encourage the production of work for the public's benefit.

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