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U.S.: Court Protects Journalists In Tape Broadcast Case

  • Kevin Foley

The United States Supreme Court says journalists can not be punished for broadcasting or publishing information that's in the public interest even if the information was obtained illegally by someone else, but press experts caution as well that the ruling does not give reporters the right to break the law in pursuit of news. Our correspondent K.P. Foley looks at the issue in this report.

Washington, 23 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. journalists are hailing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says reporters can't be held liable for broadcasting or publishing information that's in the public interest even if the information was obtained illegally by someone else.

John Watson, a professor of communications law at Washington's American University, told RFE/RL that the ruling strengthens the right of press freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"I think this is a major victory for journalism, at least in a legal sense."

At the same time, however, Watson and other press experts cautioned that the ruling does not give the press license to break the law, or encourage others to break the law, in pursuit of news. In fact, they note that the ruling focused narrowly on the specific facts of the case that was before the Court.

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation and is called the final arbiter of, among other things, questions arising from interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. In this case, the court decided that the First Amendment right of press freedom prevailed over the individual's right to privacy protected by the constitution's Fourth Amendment.

Kathleen Kirby, a Washington attorney and an expert on laws involving electronic communications, told RFE/RL that the ruling upheld a cherished principle of journalism.

"I would say we're pleased because it re-emphasizes a point journalists have always kind of held dear: that if they publish newsworthy information that the journalists have lawfully acquired they have a First Amendment shield."

The nine justices of the Court ruled 6-3 on 21 May that two radio stations in the northeastern state of Pennsylvania and a radio talk show host there cannot be held legally responsible for disseminating telephone conversations that were originally obtained through illegal means by an anonymous third party.

In this case, the radio stations were given recorded conversations of two local school teachers' union officials who were discussing negotiations with the school board over pay increases. One of the union officials is heard to say that the union should blow off the front porch of a school board member's house to get the board's attention.

The union officials sued the broadcasters. The officials charged that their reasonable expectations of privacy in their cellular telephone conversations were violated by the press action. They also accused the broadcasters of breaking both state and U.S. federal laws that prohibit the secret recording of someone else's telephone conversations.

The broadcasters argued that they did not make the tape recordings nor had they encouraged anyone else to do so, so they did not break the law. They also argued that the union leaders were public figures discussing an issue of great local importance -- a possible strike by school teachers. They said this consideration outweighed the union leaders' arguments about privacy.

The local broadcasters were supported in their case by several national news organizations and press advocates, and a lower U.S. court in Pennsylvania upheld the right of the stations to broadcast the materials.

Lucy Dalglish, the president of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told RFE/RL that the Supreme Court decision means the court recognized that "there is a need to cover matters of great public importance in the media and that you cannot put it upon the media to determine whether or not the information they are reporting was illegally obtained."

"They recognized the fact that there is a need to report on matters of public interest even if it does to some extent violate someone's privacy to some limited degree. So if you were a public official you really only have a measured, a limited amount of privacy if you are discussing matters of public importance."

However, the author of the Supreme Court's majority opinion -- Justice John Paul Stevens -- said the decision in this case was determined by three specific factors. He said the broadcasters played no role in the illegal recording, or "interception," as it is called. Stevens said the first person to broadcast the tapes obtained them legally, in this case from the head of a local citizens' group opposed to the teachers demands, who had found the tape recordings in his mailbox. Finally, the justice wrote that the subject matter was of great public concern.

Washington attorney Kirby said the court's majority opinion narrowed the case significantly.

"I would say the ruling is quite narrow. The ruling itself, if you read it, there is language in there that makes clear it's pretty much limited to the facts of this case, in which the justices say that the folks involved in this conversation were limited public figures and also that the information broadcast by the radio station was pretty much clearly newsworthy and information of public interest and importance."

American University's Watson said the ruling contains a warning for the press.

"The court, at least for now, is saying 'don't think or presume that this is a broad imprimatur to the use of illegally obtained information.' You should read this case in context, in the specific context of the facts of this case. You don't have a blanket right to use illegally obtained information."

Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the minority opinion the view that the decision would have a "chilling effect" on the estimated 49 million users of cellular telephones in the United States.

Rehnquist contended that it was wrong for the court to, in effect, declare unconstitutional the laws protecting the privacy of telephone conversations approved by 41 states and the U.S. Congress.