3rd Circuit ruling upholds news media

Wednesday, May 4, 2005

If not for its unfortunate facts, the decision in Bowley v. City of Uniontown Police Department would bring nothing but smiles from news reporters and editors.

In Bowley, released April 26, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals resoundingly upheld the news media’s First Amendment right to publish truthful, lawfully obtained information, even if the information should not have been disclosed to reporters.

In doing so, the court reaffirmed the constitutional principle that publication of such information can be punished only in the most limited of circumstances — and then expanded that right so as to effectively eliminate even that narrow exception.

The issues in Bowley arose in 2000 after Uniontown, Pa., police arrested 15-year-old James Landon Bowley on charges that he had raped a 7-year-old girl he was babysitting. The girl’s mother pressed the charges after her daughter was treated in the Uniontown Hospital for bleeding and other injuries that suggested she had been penetrated.

Police ultimately charged Bowley with two counts of rape and one count each of indecent assault, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and indecent exposure. Despite the fact that Bowley was a minor, a Uniontown police officer provided information about Bowley’s arrest and charges to the Uniontown Herald Standard. The Herald Standard published a short article about the incident and identified Bowley as the alleged perpetrator.

For reasons that were not clear even to the circuit court, Bowley apparently never was prosecuted for his purported crimes. Through his father, Bowley then sued the newspaper, the police department and the police officer, alleging they had invaded his privacy and violated a Pennsylvania statute that prohibits disclosure of juvenile law-enforcement records.

The police department and officer settled quickly, leaving only the Herald Standard in the case. The newspaper moved to dismiss the action, asserting its First Amendment right to publish truthful, lawfully obtained information. After the trial court granted that motion, Bowley appealed to the 3rd Circuit.

In affirming the trial court, the 3rd Circuit relied heavily on two U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Florida Star v. B.J.F. (1989) and Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing (1979). In those cases, the Court held that “if a newspaper lawfully obtains truthful information about a matter of public significance then state officials may not constitutionally punish publication of the information, absent a need to further a state interest of the highest order.”

Under this test, the 3rd Circuit ruled, Bowley’s case against the Herald Standard could not proceed. First, the court held, there was no dispute that the newspaper had obtained the information about Bowley’s arrest lawfully. In reaching this conclusion, the court distinguished between the officer’s release of the information — which was prohibited by the statute — and the Herald Standard’s receipt of the information, which was not.

Because the parties agreed that the published information was truthful, the court next analyzed whether the arrest was a matter of public concern. While recognizing that in some cases the details of a crime might not be of public significance, the court held that an arrest for the rape of a minor was a matter of legitimate public concern, regardless of the age of the accused. For this reason, the court held, Bowley’s privacy claim also failed, as no right to privacy exists for matters of public concern.

The 3rd Circuit next considered Bowley’s argument that maintaining the anonymity of juveniles within the justice system was a “state interest of the highest order” that brought the case outside the First Amendment protection afforded by Florida Star and Daily Mail Publishing. In doing so, however, the court noted that the presence of an important state interest was not enough. In addition, the court said, Bowley needed to demonstrate that allowing civil damages against the newspaper was “the most narrowly tailored way” to serve that interest.

The court held Bowley could not make this showing, even if maintaining juvenile anonymity were a state interest of the highest order. When the issue is publication of information the government is supposed to keep confidential, the court said, “not releasing the information to the media in the first place will more narrowly serve the interest of preserving confidentiality than will punishing the publication of the information once inappropriately released.” Thus, “when the government is ultimately responsible for the disclosure of information, imposing civil liability upon a newspaper for the subsequent publication of that information is not the most narrowly tailored means of serving any purported interest.”

This sweeping language is the closest any court has come to holding that news organizations never can be liable for publishing truthful information they lawfully obtain from the government. Under the 3rd Circuit’s analysis, no litigant, no matter how important the state interest in confidentiality, will be able to demonstrate that civil liability is narrowly tailored to that interest. News reporters and editors who obtain such information therefore will be free to publish it without fear of liability.

And what of people like James Landon Bowley? According to the 3rd Circuit (again quoting Florida Star), a person in Bowley’s situation must “rest his hopes for restitution ‘upon the willingness of the government to compensate victims for their loss of privacy’ stemming from the government’s inappropriate release of confidential information.”

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