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Publication of old court records cannot prompt privacy suit

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    News Media Update         CALIFORNIA         Privacy    

Publication of old court records cannot prompt privacy suit

  • Reporting information obtained from public records about old crimes is not an invasion of privacy, the state Supreme Court ruled.

Dec. 8, 2004 — Accurate reporting of facts about a crime obtained from a public record may not be the basis of a lawsuit for invasion of privacy, even years after the crime was committed and the defendant has been released from prison, the Supreme Court of California ruled Monday.

Steven Gates sued the Discovery Channel over a 2001 documentary titled “The Prosecutors,” which included details of Gates’ conviction of being an accessory after the fact to a murder for hire. Gates pleaded guilty in 1992 to helping his employer cover up the 1988 murder of a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the employer’s car dealership.

Gates was sentenced to three years in prison, but was released after 13 months for good behavior, receiving a certificate of rehabilitation and thereafter living a lawful life in San Bernardino County, Calif. After the documentary aired, Gates lost his business and marriage, and had to move, according to his attorney.

The Superior Court in San Diego dismissed Gates’ defamation claim because the documentary was substantially true, but allowed his invasion of privacy claim to go forward. The California Court of Appeal reversed, letting stand the dismissal of the defamation claim but ordering the invasion of privacy claim dismissed under the state anti-SLAPP law. The law is meant to protect against “strategic lawsuits against public participation” — lawsuits filed by parties with the intent of quieting a critic. Gates appealed.

On Dec. 6, the state Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeal in a unanimous opinion.

“We, like the high court, are ‘reluctant to embark on a course that would make public records generally available to the media but forbid their publication,'” Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote, quoting the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1975 decision in Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn . “Such a rule would make it very difficult for the media to inform citizens about the public business and yet stay within the law. The rule would invite self-censorship and very likely lead to the suppression of many items that would otherwise be published and that should be made available to the public.'”

In ruling against Gates, the Supreme Court overturned its unanimous 1971 ruling in Briscoe v. Reader’s Digest Assoc. that the passage of time could reduce the “newsworthiness” of information in a public record, removing First Amendment protection for publishing it. The court cited a long line of contrary U.S. Supreme Court cases, beginning with Cox , that had undermined Briscoe .

Gates’ attorney, Niles Sharif, told the San Francisco Chronicle that Gates would petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. “There is something fundamentally unfair about exposing and re-exposing a guy who’s paid his debt to society,” he said.

(Gates v. Discovery Communications; Media Counsel: Louis P. Petrich, Leopold, Petrich & Smith, Los Angeles) GP

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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