In Dietemann v. Time, 449 F.2d 245 (9th Cir. 1971), the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the First Amendment freedom of the press does not give reporters special license to violate individuals’ privacy. The oft-cited decision stands for the principle that there is no special constitutional immunity for newsgathering, which is entitled to less First Amendment protection than publication.
Reporters posing as patients covertly recorded Dietemann
During their newsgathering efforts for an article on quackery in medicine, Life magazine reporters targeted A. A. Dietemann, a disabled veteran and plumber who claimed to heal people with herbs and other unusual remedies. Two magazine employees entered his home, posing as patients, and used a hidden camera to photograph Dietemann and a hidden microphone to record the conversation.
Life later published the photos and a transcript of parts of the conversation. The magazine also turned the materials its reporters collected over to a local district attorney, who prosecuted Dietemann for practicing medicine without a license.
First Amendment is ‘not a license to trespass’
After the publication of the article, accompanied by photos, Dietemann sued magazine publisher Time, Inc. for invasion of privacy. A federal trial court awarded him $1,000 in damages.
On appeal, attorneys for Life argued that the First Amendment protected the magazine’s intrusive newsgathering and investigative reporting efforts. The 9th Circuit, however, rejected that claim:
“The First Amendment has never been construed to accord newsmen immunity from torts or crimes committed during the course of newsgathering. The First Amendment is not a license to trespass, to steal, or to intrude by electronic means into the precincts of another’s home or office. It does not become such a license simply because the person subjected to the intrusion is reasonably suspected of committing a crime.”
David L. Hudson, Jr. is a law professor at Belmont who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment entitled Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded (ABC-CLIO, 2017). This article was originally published in 2009.