Skip to content

No time limits exist for fair reports of court documents

Post categories

  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         IDAHO         Libel         Aug 9, 2000    

No time limits exist for fair reports of court documents

  • Old court files, even when they may have contained false information, can be printed with immunity as long as the file was available for public inspection, the Idaho Court of Appeals decided in August.

The Idaho Court of Appeals decided Aug. 2 that a lawsuit against a newspaper for publishing a 40-year-old allegation was unfounded when the newspaper had acquired the information from a public record.

The high court affirmed the Boise District Court’s 1998 dismissal of a lawsuit against The Idaho Statesman for an article it printed in 1995 that included a photograph of a 40-year-old handwritten accusation.

The accusation came in the form of a statement that accused Fred Uranga of homosexual activity with his cousin. The accusation came from a man who was convicted of child molestation in the so-called “Boys of Boise” investigation in 1955. The investigators never charged Uranga with any crime.

The 1995 article was published during the course of public debate on a proposed ballot initiative to limit the rights of homosexuals in Idaho. The article described the 1955 investigation as “one of the nation’s most infamous homosexual witch hunts.” The Statesman defended the article as “a cautionary tale” against anti-homosexual sentiments.

Uranga sued the Statesman for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress, but the district court dismissed, citing the common-law fair report privilege to accurately print what people say regardless of the truth of their statements. Uranga appealed.

In upholding the lower court’s dismissal, the court of appeals rejected Uranga’s arguments that the statement was not really a public record, and that the fair report privilege should not apply when an allegation is wrong and not, in his view, newsworthy.

Uranga said the statement was not really a public record because the court file was never offered or accepted as evidence in a judicial proceeding. In disagreeing with Uranga, the court of appeals wrote: “It was the . . . statement’s presence in a court file, not the extent of its use in judicial proceedings, that cloaked its later publication with the constitutional privilege.”

The Statesman refused to offer an opinion as to whether the 1955 allegation against Uranga was true. Instead it said it was entitled to print anything accurately that is on the record. The court agreed, saying, “A rule that the press must independently verify all allegations found in a court record before publishing the information would create the sort of chilling effect on press coverage that the United States Supreme Court has consistently admonished against.”

The court of appeals also declined to treat the allegation as capable of returning to private status with the passage of time, finding the notion to be inconsistent with “the absolute privilege to report matters in public court records.”

In declining to use the newsworthiness or “staleness” test, the court expressed sympathy for Uranga. “A price has been visited upon him for the Statesman‘s exercise of its First Amendment rights.” The court said the newsworthiness test was appealing but too difficult for the courts to apply without creating uncertainty for the free press.

(Uranga v. The Idaho Statesman, Media Attorney: Debora Kristensen, Boise) DB

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Return to: RCFP Home; News Page