Florida Star v. B.J.F.
491 U.S. 524 (1989)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524 (1989)

Florida Star v. B.J.F.

No. 87-329

Argued March 21, 1989

Decided June 21, 1989

491 U.S. 524

Syllabus

Appellant, The Florida Star, is a newspaper which publishes a "Police Reports" section containing brief articles describing local criminal incidents under police investigation. After appellee B.J.F. reported to the Sheriff's Department (Department) that she had been robbed and sexually assaulted, the Department prepared a report, which identified B.J.F. by her full name, and placed it in the Department's pressroom. The Department does not restrict access to the room or to the reports available there. A Star reporter-trainee sent to the pressroom copied the police report verbatim, including B.J.F.'s full name. Consequently, her name was included in a "Police Reports" story in the paper, in violation of the Star's internal policy. Florida Stat. § 794.03 makes it unlawful to "print, publish, or broadcast . . . in any instrument of mass communication" the name of the victim of a sexual offense. B.J.F. filed suit in a Florida court alleging, inter alia, that the Star had negligently violated § 794.03. The trial court denied the Star's motion to dismiss, which claimed, among other things, that imposing civil sanctions on the newspaper pursuant to § 794.03 violated the First Amendment. However, it granted B.J.F.'s motion for a directed verdict on the issue of negligence, finding the Star per se negligent based on its violation of § 794.03. The jury then awarded B.J.F. both compensatory and punitive damages. The verdict was upheld on appeal.

Held: Imposing damages on the Star for publishing B.J.F.'s name violates the First Amendment. Pp. 491 U. S. 530-541.

(a) The sensitivity and significance of the interests presented in clashes between First Amendment and privacy rights counsels the Court to rely on limited principles that sweep no more broadly than the appropriate context of the instant case, rather than to accept invitations to hold broadly that truthful publication may never be punished consistent with the First Amendment or that publication of a rape victim's name never enjoys constitutional protection. One such principle is 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."

Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Co.,443 U. S. 97, 443 U. S. 103.

Page 491 U. S. 525

Applied to the instant case, the Daily Mail principle commands reversal. Pp. 491 U. S. 530-536.

(b) The Star "lawfully obtain[ed] truthful information." The actual news article was accurate, and the Star lawfully obtained B.J.F.'s name from the government. The fact that state officials are not required to disclose such reports or that the Sheriff's Department apparently failed to fulfill its § 794.03 obligation not to cause or allow B.J.F.'s name to be published does not make it unlawful for the Star to have received the information, and Florida has taken no steps to proscribe such receipt. The government has ample means to safeguard the information that are less drastic than punishing truthful publication. Furthermore, it is clear that the news article generally, as opposed to the specific identity contained in it, involved "a matter of public significance": the commission, and investigation, of a violent crime that had been reported to authorities. Pp. 491 U. S. 536-537.

(c) Imposing liability on the Star does not serve "a need to further a state interest of the highest order." Although the interests in protecting the privacy and safety of sexual assault victims and in encouraging them to report offenses without fear of exposure are highly significant, imposing liability on the Star in this case is too precipitous a means of advancing those interests. Since the Star obtained the information because the Sheriff's Department failed to abide by § 794.03's policy, the imposition of damages can hardly be said to be a narrowly tailored means of safeguarding anonymity. Self-censorship is especially likely to result from imposition of liability when a newspaper gains access to the information from a government news release. Moreover, the negligence per se standard adopted by the courts below does not permit case-by-case findings that the disclosure was one a reasonable person would find offensive, and does not have a scienter requirement of any kind. In addition, § 794.03's facial underinclusiveness -- which prohibits publication only by an "instrument of mass communication" and does not prohibit the spread of victims' names by other means -- raises serious doubts about whether Florida is serving the interests specified by B.J.F. A State must demonstrate its commitment to the extraordinary measure of punishing truthful publication in the name of privacy by applying its prohibition evenhandedly to both the small-time disseminator and the media giant. Pp. 491 U. S. 537-541.

499 So.2d 883, reversed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 491 U. S. 541.

Page 491 U. S. 526

WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and O'CONNOR, J., joined.

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