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Appeals court revives privacy lawsuit against CBS

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         FLORIDA         Libel         Jun 20, 2001    

Appeals court revives privacy lawsuit against CBS

  • A ruling by a Florida appellate court eases the standard for false-light invasion-of-privacy suits.

A Florida appellate court reinstated an invasion of privacy lawsuit against CBS and its “60 Minutes” program on May 16. The District Court of Appeal in Tampa (2nd District) ruled that an attorney shown during a segment on domestic violence may pursue his case against the network.

John Heekin admitted that the information in the April 1995 episode was true, but claimed that the juxtaposition of interviews created the false impression that Heekin abused his former wife and children. Heekin’s former wife alleged that he abused her during their marriage, but police did not arrest him, citing a lack of evidence.

After Heekin sued CBS in 1999, a Sarasota County judge dismissed the case in March 2000, ruling the statute of limitations had expired. The trial court also ruled that Heekin failed to allege actual malice as part of his false-light invasion-of-privacy claim, an argument that CBS had asserted at the lower level.

The appellate court, however, determined that actual malice is not a necessary element of false light invasion of privacy. The ruling, if allowed to stand, would be a blow to truthful reporting in the state, attorneys for the media argued.

“In a free society, where you publish the truth about someone, you should never be punished,” Gregg Thomas told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in May. Thomas, a First Amendment attorney in Tampa, filed a friend of the court brief in the case on behalf of several media organizations in the case.

CBS’s argument that the case should be dismissed under the fair report privilege also failed. That doctrine allows the news media to rely on information in public records when publishing the news. The appellate court ruled the doctrine was irrelevant because Heekin sued for false light invasion of privacy, not public disclosure of private facts.

CBS has petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to review the case, said Lee Levine, the network’s counsel.

(Heekin v. CBS; Media Counsel: Lee Levine, Levine Sullivan & Koch, Washington, D.C.) DB

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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