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Dismissal of privacy suit against AP over victim ID affirmed

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         FOURTH CIRCUIT         Privacy    

Dismissal of privacy suit against AP over victim ID affirmed

  • A sexual abuse victim who told his story in open court failed to make out a legal claim against the news organization for revealing his identity.

June 11, 2003 — The U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) today affirmed the dismissal of a case brought against The Associated Press by a sexual abuse victim whose name was revealed in an April 1999 wire report.

The court said the plaintiff’s claims of invasion of privacy and fraud could not be heard, because the victim’s identity became public when he testified against his molester in open court.

The victim, who sued the AP under the name “John Doe 2,” testified at the sentencing hearing of his former school teacher, Edward Fischer, in a state court in Charleston, S.C., in April 1999.

The hearing was open to the public, but, according to the victim, the state court judge presiding over the sentencing ordered the reporters not to identify any sexual assault victims in press reports.

In its account of the hearing the following day, the AP published the victim’s name and identified him as an abuse victim. According to the court’s opinion, the AP was the only news organization to publish a victim’s name.

The victim’s suit against the AP sought damages for fraudulent misrepresentation and two forms of invasion of privacy.

The court dismissed the victim’s fraudulent misrepresentation claim, saying that any failure on the part of the AP reporter to notify the court that he intended to publish the name did not constitute fraud under South Carolina law.

With respect to the other claims, the court said the AP report could not have constituted an invasion of privacy, because the information it contained was disclosed in a court proceeding that was entirely open to the public.

“The nature of the information disclosed here does not change our legal analysis,” the court said in its opinion. “If a person, whether willingly or not, becomes an actor in an event of public or general interest, then the publication of his connection with such an occurrence is not an invasion of his right to privacy.”

The court said the AP’s decision to print the victim’s name may have demonstrated “poor judgment” but was not a violation of South Carolina law.

“While there is some justification for the complaint . . . as to the conduct of this newspaper reporter, the courts do not sit as censors of the manners of the Press,” the court said, citing a court opinion from the 1950s.

(John Doe 2 v. The Associated Press; Media counsel: Jerry Jay Bender, Baker, Ravenel & Bender, L.L.P., Columbia, South Carolina) WT

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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