NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · FIFTH CIRCUIT · Privacy · May 21, 2007
Story’s news value outweighs privacy concerns
May 21, 2007 · The news value of a Texas newspaper story about two married attorneys accused of extorting thousands from the wife’s lovers overshadows privacy concerns about the article, a federal appeals court ruled last week.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) affirmed the decision by a lower court judge who dismissed a lawsuit accusing the San Antonio Express-News of invading the privacy of lawyers Ted and Mary Roberts when it wrote about a series of threats Ted Roberts allegedly made against his wife’s former lovers.
To prove that the newspaper invaded the couple’s privacy by publishing private facts, the bankruptcy trustee who sued must show that the article was not about a matter of public concern. Relying on previous court decisions establishing a broad definition of newsworthiness, the court said the plaintiff could not show this.
“Given the broad interpretation of newsworthiness, particularly with regards to alleged criminal activity, an article describing the use of the legal system by prominent local lawyers in a way that could be described as blackmail is a matter of public concern,” U.S. Circuit Judge Carl E. Stewart wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel. “In this case, the newsworthiness of the story was enhanced by a discussion regarding the legal ethics of Ted’s actions as well as by commentary from the prosecutor’s office about its proposed response.”
John Lowe, a trustee of the Robertses’ bankruptcy estate, sued the newspaper and its parent company, Hearst Communications Inc., claiming a June 2004 article in the San Antonio Express-News disclosed private personal information included in sealed court records and it inflicted emotional distress. That eventually drove the couple into bankruptcy, the suit alleged.
The article reported that the couple devised a “blackmail scheme,” according to the court’s ruling. The article alleged that Mary Roberts engaged in a series of extramarital affairs and that Ted Roberts would then try to extort money from the lovers by sending them drafts of legal petitions, proposing to seek information on whether Ted Roberts had legal grounds to bring civil lawsuits under Texas law and naming the lovers as defendants.
Four men paid Ted Roberts between $75,000 and $155,000 as part of confidential settlements he made with them, the ruling states.
The couple objected to the newspaper obtaining the petitions because a Texas trial court had sealed the documents in previous legal actions between Ted Roberts and a former partner. The newspaper had unsuccessfully fought in the Texas courts to get those petitions unsealed.
The couple argued the paper violated the state court sealing order and used the documents as the article’s primary source. The Express-News said it received the petitions from another source.
But the court declined to take up the question of how the newspaper obtained the petitions. The panel said even if the newspaper had obtained the information in violation of a court order, the bankruptcy trustee still could not establish an invasion of privacy claim because of the article’s news value.
A year after the article was published, the Robertses were charged with theft by coercion for allegedly hatching the hoax. Ted Roberts was convicted on three counts of theft this year while his wife is awaiting trial.
(Lowe v. Hearst Communications, Inc., Media Counsel: Jonathan R. Donnellan, Hearst Corp., New York) — NC