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Court allows privacy suit over allegations in decades-old court files

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         IDAHO         Privacy         Jun 26, 2001    

Court allows privacy suit over allegations in decades-old court files

  • The state Supreme Court ruling forces an Idaho newspaper to defend its use of information contained in a court record, a source once deemed reliable by the U.S. Supreme Court.

A Boise, Idaho, man can proceed with his invasion of privacy lawsuit against The Idaho Statesman, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled on June 21. The court decided that the newspaper could not rely on the fair report privilege in publishing information from a 40-year-old court case.

Fred Uranga’s lawsuit against the newspaper had been halted after a trial judge dismissed the suit in October 1998, ruling that the Statesman had an absolute privilege to print material from a court file. A state appellate court upheld the dismissal in August 2000.

In October 1995, the Statesman published an article about a 1955 “morals” investigation in Boise, during which allegations of pedophiliac and homosexual activity led to 16 arrests. One witness in the investigation, Melvin Dir, said that Frank Jones claimed to have had sex with a cousin, Fred Uranga. The statement was included in a criminal case against Dir, who later pleaded guilty before a trial commenced. The Statesman reprinted the unsworn statement with the 1995 article, which recounted the impact of what it called one of the nation’s “most infamous homosexual witch hunts.” The 1995 story was a self-described “cautionary tale” as Idaho was debating a ballot incitive to restrict the rights of homosexuals.

Uranga filed suit in October 1997 after the Statesman refused to retract the Dir statement. Uranga appealed the decisions of the district and appellate courts.

The Statesman argued it had an absolute right to publish information contained in court records, relying on Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, a 1975 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the media’s right to publish such information.

The Idaho Supreme Court refused to find an absolute privilege to publish the information. The court distinguished this case from Cox because the allegation came from only one person, unlike the multiple sources who provided the material at issue in Cox. The information was also not ever admissible as evidence in court; it was only a filed statement in Dir’s case. The court here also reasoned that information of dubious accuracy may make it into court files.

“We cannot presume that deputy court clerks have the means of scrutinizing and controlling information they are asked to file, and by filing information, have concluded it is in the public interest to forever shield the press from liability for publishing that information,” Chief Justice Linda Copple Trout said in the opinion.

The court was also unwilling to permit the publication based on the common law fair report privilege, which is codified in Idaho law. The fair report privilege allows the publication of information from a public proceeding if the report is fair and accurate.

Trout questioned whether the privilege could ever be applied in a claim for invasion of privacy. He ruled that even if the privilege did apply to such claims, it did “not logically extend to cloak the press in an absolute privilege to publish a statement regarding Uranga’s sexuality found in a forty-year-old court file where the statement was not used in an official or judicial proceeding, was never entered into evidence, and was not in a court pleading.”

The case will now go back to the trial court.

(Uranga v. Federated Publications, Inc.; Media Counsel: Debora K. Kristensen, Givens, Pursley LLC, Boise) DB

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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