467 U.S. 20 (1984), 82-1721, Seattle Times Co. v. Rhinehart

Docket Nº:No. 82-1721
Citation:467 U.S. 20, 104 S.Ct. 2199, 81 L.Ed.2d 17
Party Name:Seattle Times Co. v. Rhinehart
Case Date:May 21, 1984
Court:United States Supreme Court

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467 U.S. 20 (1984)

104 S.Ct. 2199, 81 L.Ed.2d 17

Seattle Times Co.



No. 82-1721

United States Supreme Court

May 21, 1984

Argued February 21, 1984



Respondent Rhinehart is the spiritual leader of a religious group, respondent Aquarian Foundation. In recent years, petitioner newspaper companies published several stories about Rhinehart and the Foundation. A damages action for alleged defamation and invasions of privacy was brought in a Washington state court by respondents (who also include certain members of the Foundation) against petitioners (who also include the authors of the articles and their spouses). During the course of extensive discovery, respondents refused to disclose certain information, including the identity of the Foundation's donors and members. Pursuant to state discovery Rules modeled on the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the trial court issued an [104 S.Ct. 2201] order compelling respondents to identify all donors who made contributions during the five years preceding the date of the complaint, along with the amounts donated. The court also required respondents to divulge enough membership information to substantiate any claims of diminished membership. However, pursuant to the State's Rule 26(c), the court also issued a protective order prohibiting petitioners from publishing, disseminating, or using the information in any way except where necessary to prepare for and try the case. In seeking the protective order, respondents had submitted affidavits of several Foundation members averring that public release of the information would adversely affect Foundation membership and income and would subject its members to harassment and reprisals. By its terms, the protective order did not apply to information gained by means other than the discovery process. The Washington Supreme Court affirmed both the production order and the protective order, concluding that even if the latter order was assumed to constitute a prior restraint of free expression, the trial court had not violated its discretion in issuing the order.

Held: The protective order issued in this case does not offend the First Amendment. Pp. 29-37.

(a) In addressing the First Amendment question presented here, it is necessary to consider whether the "practice in question [furthers] an important or substantial governmental interest unrelated to the suppression of expression" and whether

the limitation of First Amendment

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freedoms [is] no greater than is necessary or essential to the protection of the particular governmental interest involved.

Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396, 413. Pp. 31-32.

(b) Judicial limitations on a party's ability to disseminate information discovered in advance of trial implicates the First Amendment rights of the restricted party to a far lesser extent than would restraints on dissemination of information in other contexts. Rules authorizing discovery are a matter of legislative grace. A litigant has no First Amendment right of access to information made available only for purposes of trying his suit. Furthermore, restraints placed on discovered information are not a restriction on a traditionally public source of information. Pp. 32-34.

(c) Rule 26(c) furthers a substantial governmental interest unrelated to the suppression of expression. Liberal pretrial discovery under the State's Rules has a significant potential for abuse. There is an opportunity for litigants to obtain -- incidentally or purposefully -- information that not only is irrelevant but, if publicly released, could be damaging to reputation and privacy. The prevention of such abuse is sufficient justification for the authorization of protective orders. Pp. 34-36.

(d) The provision for protective orders in the Washington Rules -- conferring broad discretion on the trial court -- requires, in itself, no heightened First Amendment scrutiny. The unique character of the discovery process requires that the trial court have substantial latitude to fashion protective orders. P. 36.

(e) In this case, the trial court entered the protective order upon a showing that constituted good cause as required by Rule 26(c). Also, the order is limited to the context of pretrial civil discovery, and does not restrict dissemination if the information is obtained from other sources. It is sufficient for purposes of this Court's decision that the highest court in the State found no abuse of discretion in the trial court's decision to issue a protective order pursuant to a constitutional state law. Pp. 36-37.

98 Wash.2d 226, 654 P.2d 673, affirmed.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 37.

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POWELL, J., lead opinion

[104 S.Ct. 2202] JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the issue whether parties to civil litigation have a First Amendment right to disseminate, in advance of trial, information gained through the pretrial discovery process.


Respondent Rhinehart is the spiritual leader of a religious group, the Aquarian Foundation. The Foundation has fewer than 1,000 members, most of whom live in the State of Washington. Aquarian beliefs include life after death and the ability to communicate with the dead through a medium. Rhinehart is the primary Aquarian medium.

In recent years, the Seattle Times and the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin have published stories about Rhinehart and the Foundation. Altogether, 11 articles appeared in the newspapers during the years 1973, 1978, and 1979. The five articles that appeared in 1973 focused on Rhinehart and the manner in which he operated the Foundation. They described seances conducted by Rhinehart in which people paid him to put them in touch with deceased relatives and friends. The articles also stated that Rhinehart had sold magical "stones" that had been "expelled" from his body. One article referred to Rhinehart's conviction, later vacated, for sodomy. The four articles that appeared in 1978 concentrated on an "extravaganza" sponsored by Rhinehart at the Walla Walla State Penitentiary. The articles stated that he had treated 1,100 inmates to a 6-hour-long show, during which he gave away between $35,000 and $50,000 in cash and prizes. One article described a "chorus line of girls [who] shed their

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gowns and bikinis and sang. . . ." App. 25a. The two articles that appeared in 1979 referred to a purported connection between Rhinehart and Lou Ferrigno, star of the popular television program, "The Incredible Hulk."


Rhinehart brought this action in the Washington Superior Court on behalf of himself and the Foundation against the Seattle Times, the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, the authors of the articles, and the spouses of the authors. Five female members of the Foundation who had participated in the presentation at the penitentiary joined the suit as plaintiffs.1 The complaint alleges that the articles contained statements that were "fictional and untrue," and that the defendants -- petitioners here -- knew, or should have known, they were false. According to the complaint, the articles

did and were calculated to hold [Rhinehart] up to public scorn, hatred and ridicule, and to impeach his honesty, integrity, virtue, religious philosophy, reputation as a person and in his profession as a spiritual leader.

Id. at 8a. With respect to the Foundation, the complaint also states:

[T]he articles have, or may have had, the effect of discouraging contributions by the membership and public, and thereby diminished the financial ability of the Foundation to pursue its corporate purposes.

Id. at 9a. The complaint alleges that the articles misrepresented the role of the Foundation's "choir" and falsely implied that female members of the Foundation had "stripped off all their clothes and wantonly danced naked. . . ." Id. at 6a. The complaint requests $14,100,000 in damages for the alleged defamation and invasions of privacy.2

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[104 S.Ct. 2203] Petitioners filed an answer, denying many of the allegations of the complaint and asserting affirmative defenses.3 Petitioners promptly initiated extensive discovery. They deposed Rhinehart, requested production of documents pertaining to the financial affairs of Rhinehart and the Foundation, and served extensive interrogatories on Rhinehart and the other respondents. Respondents turned over a number of financial documents, including several of Rhinehart's income tax returns. Respondents refused, however, to disclose certain financial information,4 the identity of the Foundation's donors during the preceding 10 years, and a list of its members during that period.

Petitioners filed a motion under the State's Civil Rule 37 requesting an order compelling discovery.5 In their supporting memorandum, petitioners recognized that the principal issue as to discovery was respondents'

refusa[l] to permit any effective inquiry into their financial affairs, such as the source of their donations, their financial transactions, uses of

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their wealth and assets, and their financial condition in general.

Record 350. Respondents opposed the motion, arguing in particular that compelled production of the identities of the Foundation's donors and members would violate the First Amendment rights of members and donors to privacy, freedom of religion, and freedom of association. Respondents also moved for a protective order preventing petitioners from disseminating any information gained through discovery. Respondents noted that petitioners had stated their intention to continue publishing articles about respondents and this litigation, and their intent to use information gained through discovery in future articles.

In a lengthy ruling, the trial court initially granted the motion to compel...

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