The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press hails a U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the right of journalists to publish truthful information free from liability for information it obtained lawfully. The Court held 6-3 on May 21 that two Wilkes-Barre, Pa. radio stations and a talk show host cannot be found liable for publication of phone conversations obtained by unlawful wiretapping acts of an anonymous source.
“We’re gratified the Supreme Court recognized the need to give greater weight to issues of public interest and that the court recognized that the need for public debate on matters of public interest outweighed personal privacy,” Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said. “That was the right decision to make.”
“We’re also pleased that they recognized that it would be difficult if not impossible for the media — often far down in the chain from the illegal conduct — to determine how the information was originally obtained. This will enable the media to continue to report on matters of great public interest without worrying about how it was originally obtained when the media did not engage in the illegal conduct.”
The case arose from the broadcast by two Wilkes-Barre, Pa. radio stations of a surreptitiously recorded telephone conversation between Gloria Bartnicki, chief negotiator for the local teachers’ union, and Anthony Kane Jr., a local teacher and president of the teachers’ union, about teacher raises. During the conversation, Bartnicki made a comment about blowing off the front porch of a local school board member’s house.
An unknown person intercepted the conversation, and a tape recording of the call was left in the mailbox of Jack Yocum, president of the local taxpayers’ association. Yocum gave a copy of the tape to radio talk show hosts Fred Williams of WILK and Rob Neyhard of WARM. The tape was eventually broadcast simultaneously over WILK and WGBI-AM as part of a news and public affairs talk show and was aired on local television stations as well. Local newspapers also published transcripts of the call.
Bartnicki and Kane sued Yocum, Williams (whose legal surname is Vopper), WILK, and WGBI under both federal and state wiretapping and electronic communications laws.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press joined a friend of the court brief filed by more than 20 media outlets and associations.