Dismissal upheld in privacy suit over report on runaway and her puppy
ALABAMA–A television station’s news report about a 15-year-old runaway whose puppy had been stolen and tortured did not constitute an invasion of privacy, the Supreme Court in Montgomery unanimously held in mid-January.
The court, upholding the decision of a Mobile trial court judge, found that news reports on WALA-TV about Shauna Cooley and her puppy, Gucci, were of legitimate public interest and therefore did not violate Cooley’s right of privacy.
Cooley ran away from home in February 1994 and began living in Mobile. In mid-May 1994, Cooley’s puppy was hanged, beaten and severely burned by residents of Cooley’s neighborhood. The torture and subsequent recovery of the puppy was the subject of statewide media coverage.
A few days later, WALA-TV interviewed Cooley about the incident. During the interview, a carload of men stopped nearby and yelled racial epithets and threats at the girl. WALA-TV captured the incident on tape and aired it during its news broadcast. The television station reported that Cooley was a runaway and that she had been safely removed to a juvenile facility by the sheriff.
Cooley’s parents sued WALA, asserting that the news reports invaded Cooley’s right to privacy by revealing her identity, her runaway status, and her detention at a juvenile facility.
The court found that the public had a legitimate concern in the story of Gucci and the circumstances surrounding the attack, as well as the subsequent threats to Cooley during her televised interview with WALA.
“When the viewers of WALA’s newscast witnessed [Cooley] being threatened by the group shortly after the Gucci attack, they undoubtedly became aware of the danger of a similar attack on [her],” the court stated. (J.C. and C.C. v. WALA-TV, Inc; Media Counsel: Carroll Sullivan, Mobile)