420 U.S. 469 (1975), 73-938, Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn

Docket Nº:No. 73-938
Citation:420 U.S. 469, 95 S.Ct. 1029, 43 L.Ed.2d 328
Party Name:Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn
Case Date:March 03, 1975
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 469

420 U.S. 469 (1975)

95 S.Ct. 1029, 43 L.Ed.2d 328

Cox Broadcasting Corp.

v.

Cohn

No. 73-938

United States Supreme Court

March 3, 1975

Argued November 11, 1974

APPEAL FROM THE SUPREME COURT OF GEORGIA

Syllabus

Appellant reporter, employed by a television station owned by appellant broadcasting company, during a news report of a rape case, broadcast the deceased rape victim's name, which he had obtained from the indictments, which were public records available for inspection. The victim's father, appellee, brought a damages action against appellants in reliance on a Georgia statute making it a misdemeanor to broadcast a rape victim's name, claiming that his right to privacy had been invaded by the broadcast of his daughter's name. The trial court, rejecting appellants' claims that the broadcast was privileged under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, held that the Georgia statute gave a civil remedy to those injured by its violation and granted summary judgment for appellee. On appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court initially held that, while the trial court erred in construing the Georgia statute to extend a cause of action for invasion of privacy, the complaint stated a cause of action for common law invasion of privacy, and that the First and Fourteenth Amendments did not, as a matter of law, require judgment for appellants. On a motion for rehearing, appellants contended that a rape victim's name was a matter of public interest, and hence could be published with impunity, but the Supreme Court denied the motion on the ground that the statute declared a state policy that a rape victim's name was not a matter of public concern, and sustained the statute as a legitimate limitation on the First Amendment's freedom of expression.

Held:

1. This Court has jurisdiction over the appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1257(2). Pp. 476-487.

(a) The constitutionality of the Georgia statute was "drawn in question" within the meaning of § 1257(2), since, when the Georgia Supreme Court relied upon it as a declaration of state public policy, the statute was drawn in question in a manner directly bearing upon the merits of the action, and the decision upholding its constitutional validity invokes this Court's appellate jurisdiction. P. 476.

(b) The Georgia Supreme Court's decision is a "final judgment or decree" within the meaning of § 1257. It was plainly final on the federal issue of whether the broadcasts were privileged

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under the First and Fourteenth Amendments and is not subject to further review in the state courts; and appellants would be liable for damages if the elements of the state cause of action were proved. Moreover, since the litigation could be terminated by this Court's decision on the merits and a failure to decide the free speech question now will leave the Georgia press operating in the shadow of civil and criminal sanctions of a rule of law and statute whose constitutionality is in serious doubt, this Court's reaching the merits comports with its past pragmatic approach in determining finality. Pp. 476-487.

2. The State may not, consistently with the First and Fourteenth Amendments, impose sanctions on the accurate publication of a rape victim's name obtained from judicial records that are [95 S.Ct. 1034] maintained in connection with a public prosecution and that themselves are open to public inspection. Here, under circumstances where appellant reporter based his televised report upon notes taken during court proceedings and obtained the rape victim's name from official court documents open to public inspection, the protection of freedom of the press provided by the First and Fourteenth Amendments bars Georgia from making appellants' broadcast the basis of civil liability in a cause of action for invasion of privacy that penalizes pure expression -- the content of a publication. Pp. 487-497.

(a) The commission of a crime, prosecutions resulting therefrom, and judicial proceedings arising from the prosecutions are events of legitimate concern to the public, and consequently fall within the press' responsibility to report the operations of government. Pp. 492-493.

(b) The interests of privacy fade when the information involved already appears on public record, especially when viewed in terms of the First and Fourteenth Amendments and in light of the public interest in a vigorous press. Pp. 493-495.

231 Ga. 60, 200 S.E.2d 127, reversed.

WHITE, .J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 497. BURGER, C.J., concurred in the judgment. DOUGLAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 500. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 501.

Page 471

WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue before us in this case is whether, consistently with the First and Fourteenth Amendments, a State may extend a cause of action for damages for invasion of privacy caused by the publication of the name of a deceased rape victim which was publicly revealed in connection with the prosecution of the crime.

I

In August, 1971, appellee's 17-year-old daughter was the victim of a rape, and did not survive the incident. Six youths were soon indicted for murder and rape. Although there was substantial press coverage of the crime and of subsequent developments, the identity of the victim was not disclosed pending trial, perhaps because of Ga.Code Ann. § 26-9901 (1972),1 which makes

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it a misdemeanor to publish or broadcast the name or identity of a rape victim. In April, 1972, some eight months later, the six defendants appeared in court. Five pleaded guilty to rape or attempted rape, the charge of murder having been dropped. The guilty pleas were accepted by the court, and the trial of the defendant pleading not guilty was set for a later date.

[95 S.Ct. 1035] In the course of the proceedings that day, appellant Wassell,2 a reporter covering the incident for his employer, learned the name of the victim from an examination of the indictments which were made available for his inspection in the courtroom.3 That the name of the

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victim appears in the indictments, and that the indictments were public records available for inspection are not disputed.4 Later that day, Wassell broadcast over the facilities of station WSB-TV, a television station owned by appellant Cox Broadcasting Corp., a news report concerning

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the court proceedings. The report named the victim of the crime and was repeated the following day.5

In May, 1972, appellee brought an action for money damages against appellants, relying on § 26-9901 and claiming that his right to privacy had been invaded by the television broadcasts giving the name of his deceased daughter. Appellants admitted the broadcasts, but claimed that they were privileged under both state law and the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The trial court, rejecting appellants' constitutional claims and holding that the Georgia statute gave a civil remedy to those injured by its violation, granted summary [95 S.Ct. 1036] judgment to appellee as to liability, with the determination of. damages to await trial by jury.

On appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court, in its initial opinion, held that the trial court had erred in construing 26-9901 to extend a civil cause of action for invasion of privacy, and thus found it unnecessary to consider the constitutionality of the statute. 231 Ga. 60, 200 S.E.2d 127 (1973). The court went on to rule, however, that the complaint stated a cause of action "for the invasion of the appellee's right of privacy, or for the tort of public disclosure" -- a "common law tort exist[ing] in this jurisdiction without the help of the statute that the trial judge in this case relied on." Id. at 62, 200 S.E.2d at 130. Although the privacy invaded was not that of the deceased victim, the father was held to have stated a

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claim for invasion of his own privacy by reason of the publication of his daughter's name. The court explained, however, that liability did not follow as a matter of law, and that summary judgment was improper; whether the public disclosure of the name actually invaded appellee's "zone of privacy," and if so, to what extent, were issues to be determined by the trier of fact. Also,

in formulating such an issue for determination by the factfinder, it is reasonable to require the appellee to prove that the appellants invaded his privacy with willful or negligent disregard for the fact that reasonable men would find the invasion highly offensive.

Id. at 64, 200 S.E.2d at 131. The Georgia Supreme Court did agree with the trial court, however, that the First and Fourteenth Amendments did not, as a matter of law, require judgment for appellants. The court concurred with the statement in Briscoe v. Reader's Digest Assn., Inc., 4 Cal.3d 529, 541, 483 P.2d 34, 42 (1971), that

the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment do not require total abrogation of the right to privacy. The goals sought by each may be achieved with a minimum of intrusion upon the other.

Upon motion for rehearing, the Georgia court countered the argument that the victim's name was a matter of public interest, and could be published with impunity by relying on § 26-9901 as an authoritative declaration of state policy that the name of a rape victim was not a matter of public concern. This time the court felt compelled to determine the constitutionality of the statute, and sustained it as a "legitimate limitation on the right of freedom of expression contained in the First Amendment." The court could discern

no public interest or general concern about the identity...

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