In Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469 (1975), the Supreme Court absolved a reporter from criminal and civil charges for revealing the identity of a rape victim found in a search of public documents.
In arriving at its decision, the Court in essence expressed value of the First Amendment over public disclosure privacy tort in the context of information revealed from a public record.
Georgia law forbade publication of rape victims’ identity
In this case, a father had filed suit in a Georgia court against a television news reporter who had discovered and identified his daughter by name as being a rape victim. Claiming an unlawful invasion of privacy, the father cited a Georgia criminal statute proscribing the publication or broadcast of rape victims’ identities.
In the opinion for the Court, Justice Byron R. White first confirmed that the Court had adjudicatory authority.
The Court then considered whether “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.”
Court feared creating liability for publication of public information
The Court ultimately concluded that the First Amendment (via the Fourteenth Amendment) protected the news reporter from civil and criminal liability stemming from the Georgia statute for three reasons.
- First, because the reporter had procured the information from the “public domain on official court records,” the justices maintained that merely furthering already public information does not constitute a crime.
- Second, the Court turned to defamation cases, reasoning that because the reporter’s disclosure of the rape victim’s name was neither false nor in reckless disregard for truth or falsity, liability should not be imposed. At the same time, however, the justices “carefully left open the question whether the First and Fourteenth Amendments require that truth be recognized as a defense” in defamation or public disclosure cases.
- Third, arguing more generally on policy grounds, the Court was reluctant to sanction the press for disseminating public records — even if damaging or harmful to another’s reputation — given that the press is necessary to an informed society.
The justices pointedly feared that creating liability for the publication of public information deemed “offensive to the sensibilities” would end in “self-censorship” and the “suppression of many items that would otherwise be published and that should be made available to the public.”
Justice William H. Rehnquist filed a solo dissent, chiefly on jurisdictional grounds.
This article was originally published in 2009. Sandeep C. Ramesh was a law student at Yale University.