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Court denies pre-trial review of wiretap claim against newspapers

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  1. Libel and Privacy
    NMU         U.S.

    NMU         U.S. SUPREME COURT         Privacy         Nov 2, 1999    

Court denies pre-trial review of wiretap claim against newspapers

  • Newspapers will have to defend at trial publication of the contents of an illegally recorded telephone conversation obtained when played at a press conference

The U.S. Supreme Court announced in early November that it will not hear the appeal of two Louisiana newspapers regarding an April 1999 decision from the Louisiana Supreme Court in New Orleans. On Nov. 1, the Supreme Court denied review of a decision of the state Supreme Court in which that court declined review of a Louisiana appellate decision that The Daily News of Middlesboro and the Avoyelles Journal must stand trial for allegedly violating the Louisiana Electronic Surveillance Act when they published excerpts from an illegally recorded telephone conversation.

Carl Aymond Jr., an unsuccessful candidate for state trial judge, called a press conference in the fall of 1996 to present to the public what he considered to be evidence of corruption within local courts. He played a recorded telephone conversation between Avoyelles Parish Police Juror McKinley Keller and then-state trial Judge Michael Johnson, and provided transcripts of the conversation to those who attended the press conference. The police jury is the governmental authority of a parish in Louisiana.

Both the Daily News and the Journal covered Aymond’s news conference and included excerpts from the recorded telephone conversation between Keller and Johnson in their stories. Aymond allegedly illegally recorded the conversation between Keller and Johnson, and subsequently, Keller and Johnson sued Aymond and the newspapers under the Louisiana Electronic Surveillance Act for civil damages in a Louisiana trial court in Marksville. The law makes it unlawful to record a telephone conversation without consent from at least one of the parties to the conversation or to disclose or use the recordings of such conversations.

The trial court in 1997 held that the newspapers could not be liable for civil damages under the Louisiana law since the newspapers exhibited no criminal willfulness in publishing the excerpts. In December 1998, the Louisiana intermediate appellate court in Lake Charles reversed the trial court’s decision and revived the claims against the newspapers. The appellate court found that no legitimate public interest was served by the newspapers’ disclosure of the contents of the conversation, and therefore, even in the absence of criminal willfulness, the newspapers could be civilly liable under the Louisiana law for publishing the excerpts.

In April 1999, the Louisiana Supreme Court in New Orleans refused to hear the case on appeal. The court voted 4-3 without comment not to review the appellate court’s ruling, and thus, to let the intermediate appellate decision stand.

(Central Newspapers, Inc. v. Johnson)

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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