Privacy vs. Press: Decades of Debate
Woo, William F., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
IN 1890, THE Harvard Law Review published a passionate defense of the right to privacy by Louis D. Brandeis and his law partner, Samuel Warren. Inasmuch as Brandeis went on to be one of the great Supreme Court justices, the article remains holy writ for people who think that the press should be stopped from publishing essentially private information or punished for doing so.
"The press is overstepping in every direction the obvious bounds of propriety and of decency," the authors wrote, adding that "To satisfy a prurient taste the details of sexual relations are spread broadcast in the columns of daily papers." "Triviality destroys at once robustness of thought and delicacy of feeling," they concluded. "No enthusiasm can flourish, no generous impulse can survive under its blighting influence."
Sound familiar? For many Americans, those sentiments, set down more than a century ago, describe perfectly tabloid television, the supermarket tabloids and, for some, even the mainstream press, such as the paper you are now reading.
The passages quoted here were noted in passing by Supreme Court Justice Byron White in an opinion in 1975. A Georgia man had sued a television station for broadcasting the name of his daughter, who had been raped and murdered. A state law prohibited the press from revealing the names of rape victims. Although the TV reporter got the name from open court records, the father claimed his privacy had been invaded. Georgia's Supreme court agreed.
But the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision. "We are reluctant to embark on a course that would make public records generally available to the media but forbid their publication if offensive to the sensibilities of the supposed reasonable man," White wrote for the majority. ". . . The rule would invite timidity and self-censorship and very likely lead to the suppression of many items that . . . should be made available to the public."
These divergent views, from Brandeis-Warren and White, preface this discussion of the widespread efforts now under way to restrict the press' ability to publish information from public records. The crime bill recently passed by the Senate would outlaw the release of personal information from motor vehicle records. A similar measure is pending in Missouri.
The Missouri General assembly also is considering legislation to impose onerous fees on the dissemination of state records. Those willing or able to pay the cost for obtaining open records could do so; those unable or unwilling would have to do without. In addition, a bill would make it a felony to publish information from closed court records - a form of prior restraint presently unknown anywhere in the United States.
To some extent, such measures are simply attempts to raise money at the expense of the media and other users of information that, by definition, the state already has determined belongs to the public. …