Idaho high court’s misstep shouldn’t be ignored

Tuesday, June 26, 2001

Those of us who follow press-freedom cases might be inclined to dismiss the recent decision in Uranga v. Federated Publications.

It is, after all, a ruling of the Idaho Supreme Court, hardly a leader in First Amendment jurisprudence. And it’s an unusual case, involving a newspaper sued for dredging up details of a 40-year-old sex scandal. And it’s inconsistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bartnicki v. Vopper, which held that an individual’s privacy interests must give way to the media’s right to publish truthful, lawfully obtained information.

We’d be foolish, however, to dismiss the Uranga opinion. For all its unique characteristics, its holding is clear, unprecedented and alarming: A newspaper that publishes information obtained from court records can be liable for invasion of privacy.

At issue in Uranga was a witness statement obtained in 1956 during the “Boys of Boise” scandal, in which allegations of pedophilic and homosexual activity resulted in approximately 1,500 interrogations and 16 arrests. One of the witnesses was Melvin Dir, who provided a sworn statement that he had had a gay affair with Frank Jones, the son of a Boise city councilman, and that Jones had had sexual encounters with Jones’ cousin, Fred Uranga. For reasons now unknown, Dir’s statement was placed in the court file of one of the cases.

The Idaho Statesman in 1995 published an article marking the 40th anniversary of the scandal. In that article, the Statesman recounted the impact of the investigation on Jones, who ultimately committed suicide. The article contained an unedited reprint of Dir’s statement but did not otherwise mention Uranga.

Uranga sued the Statesman in 1997 for invasion of privacy. The newspaper argued it had an absolute right to publish information obtained from court records. The newspaper relied on the 1975 decision in Cox Broadcasting v. Cohn, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that the First Amendment does not allow “exposing the press to liability for truthfully publishing information released to the public in official court records.”

The trial court dismissed the Statesman case, and the court of appeals affirmed. In a 5-0 decision, however, the state high court reversed, holding that Cox Broadcasting did not create an absolute privilege to publish information in court files, and that, in this case, a reasonable jury could find that the newspaper had invaded Uranga’s privacy.

In light of the clear language in Cox Broadcasting, the Idaho court had to go to considerable lengths to justify its ruling. The Idaho court first said the decision in Cox Broadcasting was distinguishable because it was based on the benefits resulting from public scrutiny of the judicial system. Those benefits were not present in Uranga, the court said, because the article did not purport to “subject trials to public scrutiny.”

Second, the court distinguished the Dir statement from the “official” court records at issue in Cox Broadcasting. The Dir statement, the court said, mentioned individuals (including Uranga) who were not subjects of a criminal investigation. Moreover, the court said, the statement never was used in an official proceeding and never was accepted as evidence. Although indisputably part of a public court file, the statement, according to the court, was only “tangentially related” to the criminal prosecution.

Third, the court rejected the U.S. Supreme Court’s presumption that information placed in a court file serves a legitimate public interest. While conceding that states control what information is placed in a court record, the court curiously said that deputy court clerks cannot be presumed to have examined “every piece of information that makes its way into a court file.” Materials like the Dir statement, the court said, therefore cannot be presumed to be of legitimate public interest.

Fourth, the court dissected the U.S. Supreme Court’s use of the words “truthful” and “accurate” to attempt to determine whether the ruling in Cox Broadcasting applied to false information contained in a court file. Concluding that the U.S. Supreme Court’s imprecise use of these terms required a narrow reading of the decision, the Idaho court said the First Amendment does not necessarily protect the republication of false information from court files.

Finally, the Idaho court distinguished the decision in Cox Broadcasting on the grounds that, in that case, a Georgia statute prohibited publication of the information at issue. Because no statute applied in Uranga, the court said, it was appropriate to judge the case under traditional invasion of privacy principles.

The court’s attempts to evade the requirements of Cox Broadcasting are flawed in several respects. The existence of the statute in Cox Broadcasting, for example, established a privacy interest significantly greater than the traditional privacy right asserted in Uranga. If the First Amendment trumped that interest, it certainly outweighs the right claimed in Uranga.

Moreover, no legal support exists for the Idaho court’s suggestions that “old” information in court files can be safely published only if the article is focused on the administration of justice, only if the information is directly related to the court file, only if the information is of legitimate public interest and only if the information is true. Never has a court held that a reporter must verify the truth of a statement in an official record before publishing it. Nor has any court held that a reporter must establish a direct relationship between information in a public file and the purpose of that file before publishing the information.

Despite its efforts to convince us otherwise, the decision in Uranga is inconsistent with Cox Broadcasting and at least 25 years of First Amendment precedent.

The risk of a decision like Uranga is twofold. First, the opinion’s flawed logic might persuade uninformed judges to create additional exceptions to Cox Broadcasting. Second, judges in today’s privacy-crazed society might see the opinion’s logical flaws but nevertheless hide behind them in order to inhibit reporting. In either case, decisions like Uranga pollute First Amendment jurisprudence and endanger First Amendment freedoms.

We probably always can find a reason to dismiss decisions like Uranga. When we do so, however, we do so at our peril.

Tags: , , , ,