Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn
420 U.S. 469 (1975)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469 (1975)

Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn

No. 73-938

Argued November 11, 1974

Decided March 3, 1975

420 U.S. 469

Syllabus

Appellant reporter, employed by a television station owned by appellant broadcasting company, during a news report of a rape case, broadcast the deceased rape victim's name, which he had obtained from the indictments, which were public records available for inspection. The victim's father, appellee, brought a damages action against appellants in reliance on a Georgia statute making it a misdemeanor to broadcast a rape victim's name, claiming that his right to privacy had been invaded by the broadcast of his daughter's name. The trial court, rejecting appellants' claims that the broadcast was privileged under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, held that the Georgia statute gave a civil remedy to those injured by its violation and granted summary judgment for appellee. On appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court initially held that, while the trial court erred in construing the Georgia statute to extend a cause of action for invasion of privacy, the complaint stated a cause of action for common law invasion of privacy, and that the First and Fourteenth Amendments did not, as a matter of law, require judgment for appellants. On a motion for rehearing, appellants contended that a rape victim's name was a matter of public interest, and hence could be published with impunity, but the Supreme Court denied the motion on the ground that the statute declared a state policy that a rape victim's name was not a matter of public concern, and sustained the statute as a legitimate limitation on the First Amendment's freedom of expression.

Held:

1. This Court has jurisdiction over the appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1257(2). Pp. 420 U. S. 476-487.

(a) The constitutionality of the Georgia statute was "drawn in question" within the meaning of § 1257(2), since, when the Georgia Supreme Court relied upon it as a declaration of state public policy, the statute was drawn in question in a manner directly bearing upon the merits of the action, and the decision upholding its constitutional validity invokes this Court's appellate jurisdiction. P. 420 U. S. 476.

(b) The Georgia Supreme Court's decision is a "final judgment or decree" within the meaning of § 1257. It was plainly final on the federal issue of whether the broadcasts were privileged

Page 420 U. S. 470

under the First and Fourteenth Amendments and is not subject to further review in the state courts; and appellants would be liable for damages if the elements of the state cause of action were proved. Moreover, since the litigation could be terminated by this Court's decision on the merits and a failure to decide the free speech question now will leave the Georgia press operating in the shadow of civil and criminal sanctions of a rule of law and statute whose constitutionality is in serious doubt, this Court's reaching the merits comports with its past pragmatic approach in determining finality. Pp. 420 U. S. 476-487.

2. The State may not, consistently with the First and Fourteenth Amendments, impose sanctions on the accurate publication of a rape victim's name obtained from judicial records that are maintained in connection with a public prosecution and that themselves are open to public inspection. Here, under circumstances where appellant reporter based his televised report upon notes taken during court proceedings and obtained the rape victim's name from official court documents open to public inspection, the protection of freedom of the press provided by the First and Fourteenth Amendments bars Georgia from making appellants' broadcast the basis of civil liability in a cause of action for invasion of privacy that penalizes pure expression -- the content of a publication. Pp. 420 U. S. 487-497.

(a) The commission of a crime, prosecutions resulting therefrom, and judicial proceedings arising from the prosecutions are events of legitimate concern to the public, and consequently fall within the press' responsibility to report the operations of government. Pp. 420 U. S. 492-493.

(b) The interests of privacy fade when the information involved already appears on public record, especially when viewed in terms of the First and Fourteenth Amendments and in light of the public interest in a vigorous press. Pp. 420 U. S. 493-495.

231 Ga. 60, 200 S.E.2d 127, reversed.

WHITE, .J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 420 U. S. 497. BURGER, C.J., concurred in the judgment. DOUGLAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 420 U. S. 500. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 420 U. S. 501.

Page 420 U. S. 471

Primary Holding
It is unconstitutional under the First Amendment to criminalize releasing the name of a rape victim or to permit a private right of action against the press for doing so. Also, a decision of a state supreme court on a federal issue may be considered a final judgment for the purpose of an immediate appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, even if the lower state courts have not completely concluded proceedings.
Facts
A reporter for Cox Broadcasting reported on the news that the victim of a rape and murder was Cohn's daughter. He found this information by seeing the indictment at the alleged perpetrator's public criminal trial. However, releasing the name of a rape victim was a misdemeanor in Georgia. Cohn brought an action that was classified by the Georgia Supreme Court as a claim for invasion of privacy. It also ruled that the Georgia criminal law did not violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The case was preparing to go back to the lower courts for a decision on the merits, but Cox Broadcasting sought to appeal the state supreme court's decision on the constitutionality of the law before those proceedings started. Historically, the U.S. Supreme Court can hear an appeal of a case in a state court only after the state's highest court has issued a final judgment or decree.

Opinions

Majority

  • Byron Raymond White (Author)
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Potter Stewart
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.

The analysis in this area of appellate law is more practical than formal. All that remains of this case are the state law elements of the cause of action, and the federal component of the controversy has been resolved. However, a trial on the merits should not proceed if it would be unconstitutional on its face. A final decision against Cohn at the state level also would prevent this important constitutional issue from being decided with the finality that it deserves.

Concurrence

  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. (Author)

Concurrence

  • Warren Earl Burger (Author)

Concurrence

  • William Orville Douglas (Author)

Dissent

  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)

Case Commentary

The court was particularly persuaded by the fact that the indictments already had made the information public, so the state could not reasonably argue that the press should keep it private. Since the state already had evinced its belief that the information was of public interest by including it in the indictments, the press had the right to disclose the victim's identity.

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