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Court reinstates protection for publishing contents of court records

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  1. Libel and Privacy

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Court reinstates protection for publishing contents of court records

  • The Idaho Statesman cannot be liable for invasion of privacy for publishing the contents of a public record, no matter how old the record.

Feb. 18, 2003 — In a complete reversal of its previous ruling, the Idaho Supreme Court held Friday that a newspaper that published part of a 40-year-old court file could not be held liable for inaccuracies in the file.

The court’s decision in favor of the Boise paper, The Idaho Statesman, was unanimous and replaced a previous, unanimous ruling against the paper.

The case concerned an article published in 1995 about Boise’s history with homosexual witch hunts. The article reported that in 1955, allegations of pedopheliac and homosexual activity led to 16 arrests. Along with the story, the Statesman printed a copy of a 1956 statement of a witness who said Frank Jones, the son of a Boise City Councilman, had engaged in sex with his cousin, Fred Uranga.

Uranga sued in 1997, claiming the story invaded his privacy and caused him emotional distress.

The newspaper argued that it had an absolute right to publish information contained in court records. The paper relied on Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, a 1975 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the media’s First Amendment right to make public the contents of court records.

Uranga’s claims were dismissed by the trial court and the intermediate appellate court. But in June 2001, the Idaho Supreme Court rejected the paper’s First Amendment claim. The court said the information contained in the 40-year-old court file was likely inaccurate and ruled that Uranga could proceed with his claims against the newspaper.

Friday’s decision erased that ruling. Justice Daniel Eismann, writing for the court, said there can be no liability for the publication of the contents of a public record, regardless of how old the record is.

“There is no indication that the First Amendment provides less protection to historians than to those reporting current events,” Eismann wrote. He said Uranga’s case could not be distinguished from Cox Publishing based on the age of the public record.

Eismann was one of two justices who participated in both high court rulings in the Uranga case.

Media attorney Debora K. Kristensen, who represented the Statesman in the case, said Friday’s decision was a long time coming. She applauded the court for joining the vast majority of jurisdictions that have held that the media have an absolute right to publish information from court records.

(Uranga v. Federated Publications, Inc.; Media counsel: Debora K. Kristensen, Givens Pursley LLC, Boise, Idaho) WT

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