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Privacy interests of Little Leaguers trump free speech

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Privacy         Jun 1, 2001    

Privacy interests of Little Leaguers trump free speech

  • A state appellate court refused to apply the “anti-SLAPP” law to a privacy case over publication of a team picture.

The privacy rights of minors outweigh the free speech rights of the news media, a California appellate court ruled on May 30. The decision by the California Court of Appeal in Riverside means that a Little League baseball coach and his players can continue to pursue an invasion of privacy lawsuit against Time Warner.

In September 1999, Sports Illustrated published a cover story on incidents of child molestation in youth sports. The article named Norman Watson, a Little League team manager in Highland, Calif., as one coach with a long history of sexually abusing children. The article included a photograph of Watson’s team with a caption that identified the team, but did not provide the names of anyone in the picture. Also that month, HBO broadcast a report on the same subject that named Watson and showed the team picture.

Ten of the players and coaches shown in the photograph sued Time Warner, the parent company of both Sports Illustrated and HBO, for invasion of privacy. Time Warner, which has since merged with America Online, moved to strike the complaint under the California anti-SLAPP law. To continue with their lawsuit, the players and Watson must convince a judge that they will probably prevail on the claims of invasion of privacy.

Here, the appeals court ruled that the anti-SLAPP law applied because the statute is to “be interpreted broadly” and does not only apply to “weak” defendants opposed by powerful plaintiffs, it also applies to media defendants. The statute applies, the plaintiffs here conceded, because the suit arose over speech in connection with a public issue.

However, the appeals court ruled that Time Warner not entitled to relief under the anti-SLAPP lawsuit because Watson and the others showed a reasonable probability of success in their case. The court looked at several invasion of privacy cases involving suggestions of sexual misconduct and ruled that plaintiffs have a viable invasion of privacy claim in general. Specifically, the court approved claims of “public disclosure of private facts” and “false light.”

Time Warner argued that a claim for public disclosure could not stand because the stories were so newsworthy and the team photo was not private. In its argument, the media company highlighted that the photo was taken in a public place and that Watson admitted molesting players in his role as coach.

However, the plaintiffs argued that this was the first occasion that the players and other coaches on the team were publicly identified. The minors in the photo also submitted affidavits alleging harassment at school after the photo appeared.

The court ruled that limited distribution of a photograph does not necessarily negate its private status.

“The claim of a right of privacy is not ‘so much one of total secrecy as it is of the right to define one’s circle of intimacy — to choose who shall see beneath the quotidian mask,'” Judge Barton Gaut wrote.

In a further rebuke of Time Warner’s argument, the court said state law prohibits the disclosure of the identity of minors and victims of sex crimes and that public policy favors such protection.

Gaut also noted that the plaintiffs’ claim of “false light” invasion of privacy might stand because a person who read the article or viewed the television program might reasonably conclude that the people in the photo participated in or condoned the molestations.

(M.G. v. Time Warner, Inc.; Media Counsel: Robert C. Vanderet, O’Melveny & Myers, Los Angeles) DB

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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