Skirmishing over Freedom of Speech

By Kirtley, Jane | American Journalism Review, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Skirmishing over Freedom of Speech


Kirtley, Jane, American Journalism Review


A judge reluctantly denies a hospital's request to block a CBS news segment from airing.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said many times that prior restraints on speech are presumed to violate the First Amendment. Judges rarely agree to issue restraining orders to stop the press, and the few who do almost always find themselves reversed on appeal. That's why a skirmish in federal court in Charlotte, North Carolina, between CBS and a chain of psychiatric hospitals, ended in a victory for the TV network.

On April 20, Charter Behavioral Health Systems tried to stop CBS from airing a "60 Minutes II" program about conditions at its facilities. The hospital chain claimed that broadcast of the hour-long investigation would violate the privacy of patients who had been captured on a hidden camera worn by a licensed social worker named Terrance Johnson. He had obtained a job as a mental health technician at Charter's Charlotte facility at the behest of the network.

CBS issued a statement saying that "the privacy of all patients is protected" in the program, and that a restraining order against the broadcast would be unconstitutional.

At a 90-minute oral argument on April 21, less than eight hours before the segment was scheduled to air, a lawyer for Charter argued that the network had broken the law when it used a hidden camera to videotape the patients, even though concealed cameras are legal in North Carolina. According to Associated Press accounts, attorney John Wester contended that "you can't have confidence in the therapeutic process" if psychiatric patients are subjected to surreptitious videotaping.

Lee Levine, an attorney representing CBS, countered that the privacy interests of the patients were not in peril because their identities had been kept so secret that even the lawyers for the network didn't know their names. He also argued that the broadcast raised significant questions about the quality of care at Charter's facilities, matters that were clearly of public interest.

CBS has been embroiled in a similar controversy before. In 1994, Federal Beef Processors, a slaughterhouse and meat packing company, sued the network in state court in Rapid City, South Dakota, demanding that the judge forbid the broadcast of an episode of "48 Hours." It contained footage of questionable sanitary conditions in its cutting room, videotaped by an employee wearing a hidden camera. Judge Jeff W. Davis issued the injunction, finding that CBS had obtained the videotape through "calculated misdeeds" that led a Federal Beef employee astray. …

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