By Bischof, Dan
News Media and the Law , Vol. 25, No. 3
Florida appeals court has reinstated a "false light" invasion of privacy lawsuit brought by an attorney against CBS's "60 Minutes," even though the report at issue was true.
John Heekin, an attorney shown in a "60 Minutes" segment on domestic violence, may pursue his case against CBS, the court held on May 16.
If allowed to stand, the ruling by the District Court of Appeal in Tampa (2nd district), would strike a blow to truthful reporting in the state, attorneys for the media argued.
"In a free society, where you publish the truth about someone, you should never be punished," Gregg Thomas told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in May. Thomas' firm, Holland & Knight, filed a friend of the court brief in the case on behalf of several media organizations in the case.
On April 30, 1995, "60 Minutes" aired a segment on domestic violence and how the judicial system deals with the problem. The segment showed an interview with Heekin's ex-wife, Judy Heekin, juxtaposed with stories and pictures of women who had been abused and even killed by their domestic partners. Judy Heekin had lodged allegations of domestic violence against her then-husband, but law enforcement officials did not arrest him, citing a lack of evidence. However, Judy Heekin had filed three petitions for a restraining order, each time receiving an emergency order forbidding domestic violence from a magistrate.
In his complaint, filed one day short of four years from the broadcast, Heekin admitted that the information in the broadcast was true, but claimed that the juxtaposition of the other women's stories with his wife's created the false impression that he had abused her and their children.
After Heekin sued CBS in April 1999, a Sarasota County judge dismissed the case in March 2000, ruling that the two years he had to bring the case after the program aired had passed. The court also ruled that Heekin failed to allege that CBS acted with actual malice; that is, knowing the report was false or showing a reckless disregard of the truth. Finally, the judge ruled that CBS could not be liable for publishing information gleaned from public records.
On appeal, the appellate court determined that actual malice is not a necessary element of false light invasion of privacy. The court rejected CBS's argument that a 1967 Supreme Court case, Time v. Hill, required that Heekin prove actual malice for his false light claim based on a publication about a mater of public concern. The court ruled that the case was inapplicable because in Hill, "the action was essentially one for defamation," whereas in Heekin, the action was simply for false light.
Jim McGuire, a Holland & Knight attorney who assisted on the media's friendof-the-court brief, disagreed with the court's ruling.
"The Supreme Court's holding is in fact quite broad: the constitutional protections for speech and press preclude imposing liability for a false report on a matter of public interest without proof of actual malice," he said. …