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High court rejects privacy rights for corporations

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         INDIANA         Privacy         Oct 25, 2001    

High court rejects privacy rights for corporations

  • University of Evansville officials wanted to stop a former professor from creating Web sites and e-mail accounts using the school’s name, but the state Supreme Court said they couldn’t succeed on a privacy claim.

Unlike individuals, corporations aren’t entitled to sue for invasion of privacy, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled on Oct. 1.

With its 5-0 ruling, the court joined other states — including Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut and California — that specifically deny privacy rights to corporations. The Indiana court also noted that no state has recognized a claim for invasion of privacy by a corporation.

The case didn’t involve a media defendant, but the ruling has favorable implications for the press, said Dan Byron, an Indianapolis attorney who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Hoosier State Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Broadcasters and LIN Television Corp.

Indiana law gives corporations the right to sue for libel, but they must prove that a news story was false and was published with actual malice, meaning knowledge that the story was false or reckless disregard for the truth. Allowing corporations the right to claim invasion of privacy would have provided another weapon against the media, Byron said.

“We did not want to give this extra arrow to the quiver of corporations,” Byron said. “If this happened in Indiana, it could possibly start happening in other states, and we wanted to make sure this got corrected immediately.”

The decision, written by Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard, overturns an injunction that had been granted to the University of Evansville to stop a former professor from using the university’s name in e-mail addresses and Web site addresses.

William Felsher, who taught French at the university until he was fired in 1991, created Internet Web sites and e-mail accounts in 1997 that contained portions of the names of three university officials and the university itself. The Web sites featured articles, written by Felsher, accusing the school officials of wrongdoing and claiming that one professor had publicly declared himself unqualified to teach one of his courses, the ruling says.

Felsher used the e-mail accounts to send mail to several universities nominating the University of Evansville officials for jobs. His e-mail directed the reader to one of the Web pages he had created as a reference for the nominee’s activities, the opinion says.

The university and the school officials sued the professor for invasion of privacy for misappropriating their identities. The trial court granted an injunction stopping Felsher’s Internet activities, and the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court affirmed the injunction on behalf of the three university officials but reversed as to the university. The court noted that the university could sue for trademark infringement and unfair competition.

(Felsher v. University of Evansville; Media counsel: Dan Byron, McHale, Cook & Welch, Indianapolis) MD

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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