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Publication of false comments from court file protected

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         IDAHO         Libel         Aug 17, 2000    

Publication of false comments from court file protected

  • The First Amendment shields a newspaper from liability for printing controversial allegations from a court file about a man’s homosexual affair, according to an Idaho appellate court.

The Idaho Court of Appeals ruled on August 2 that the First Amendment allowed a newspaper to reprint part of a court file regardless of the ultimate truth of the court documents.

In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel found that The Idaho Statesman was not liable for publishing a court file that may have contained false allegations about a Boise man’s alleged homosexual affair with his cousin. The court held that U.S. Supreme Court precedent interpreting the First Amendment mandated that the contents of court files be treated as public records that could be distributed regardless of the validity of the statements contained in the documents.

The decision was a victory for the Statesman in an invasion of privacy lawsuit filed by Fred Uranga. Uranga had sued after the Statesman published a 1995 story illustrated in part with a photograph of a handwritten 1955 statement concerning Uranga’s alleged sexual involvement with his cousin. According to the court, the accompanying article recounting the impact of one of the nation’s “most infamous homosexual witch hunts.” According to the article, one man committed suicide within several years of the allegations surfacing.

The 1995 story was a self-described “cautionary tale” as Idaho was debating a ballot incitive to restrict the rights of homosexuals.

Uranga claimed that the 1955 statement republished in 1995 was false and was never introduced into court as evidence. Uranga sued after the newspaper refused to print a correction but offered to print Uranga’s rebuttal or a follow-up article containing his perspective.

In an opinion by Justice Karen Lasning, the court held that the 1955 statement was a public document regardless of whether the claims contained within it were truthful. The court noted that it the responsibility of the court and not the newspaper or the general public to ensure that documents were properly placed in the court file. The court also noted that the documents remained open to the public — including the newspaper — regardless of the length of time that had passed since the documents were originally filed.

(Uranga v. Federated Publications; Media Counsel: Debora Kristensen, Boise) GK

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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