Georgia high court overturns $100,000 judgment in privacy case
GEORGIA — In early December the Georgia Supreme Court in Atlanta overturned a $100,000 judgment won by a woman who sued the Macon Telegraph after the paper reported that she killed a burglar who had carried a knife and had exposed his penis.
The woman, Nancy Tatum, claimed that the paper invaded her privacy when it identified her in articles about the shooting. A jury awarded Tatum $30,000 in compensatory damages and $70,000 in punitive damages. In February a state appeals court in Atlanta affirmed the award.
Tatum buttressed her claim by noting that Georgia law prohibits publication of a sexual assault victim’s name if the name was not obtained from public records.
In reversing the appeals court, a unanimous state Supreme Court ruled that under the facts of this case, the First Amendment and the free press guarantee in Georgia’s state constitution protect the newspaper from liability for invasion of privacy.
The court adopted a test applied by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1989 case The Florida Star v. B.J.F., in which the Court held that the First Amendment precluded the imposition of damages on a newspaper that published a rape victim’s name that was obtained from a police report.
The test states that “absent a need to further a state interest of the highest order,” newspapers cannot be held liable for publishing lawfully obtained, truthful information about matters of public interest.
Georgia’s Supreme Court held that by committing a homicide, even a justified one, Tatum “became the object of a legitimate public interest,” and “lost her right to keep her name private.”
(Macon Telegraph Publishing Co. v. Tatum; Media Counsel: Walter H. Bush, Jr., Macon)