Jail rape victim privacy suit against newspaper thrown out
SOUTH CAROLINA–In late February the state Supreme Court in Columbia held that a rape victim whose name was published by a newspaper could not sue the newspaper for invasion of privacy because the crime was an event of public interest.
The victim, a man identified in court documents only as “John Doe,” sued The Berkeley Independent in January 1993 after the newspaper printed a story disclosing his identity as the victim of a rape by a fellow inmate while being held in the Berkeley County jail.
In a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Ernest Finney, the court held that accurate reports of events of “public significance” based on information that was lawfully obtained are protected against suits for invasion of privacy.
“Under state law, 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 privacy,” Finney wrote.
The high court’s opinion reversed the April 1996 decision of the state Court of Appeals in Columbia. The appellate court had held that the trial court judge’s October 1994 decision to dismiss Doe’s suit was incorrect because a jury should have been allowed to determine whether or not Doe’s identity was a matter of public significance.
The high court ruled that “the commission of a violent crime between inmates of a county jail is a matter of public significance as a matter of law.” Because the incident was a legitimate matter of public concern, the court held, Doe’s identity was also of public significance.
“The Court of Appeals erred in separating the plaintiff’s identity from the event,” Finney wrote. (Doe v. Berkeley Publishers; Media Counsel: Jay Bender, Columbia)