Lexis Nexis - Case Brief

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Law School Case Brief

Cox Broad. Corp. v. Cohn - 420 U.S. 469, 95 S. Ct. 1029 (1975)

Rule:

Under the common law, truth was not a complete defense to prosecutions for criminal libel, although it was in civil actions.

Facts:

The identity of a 17-year-old deceased rape victim was obtained by a television newsman from official court records open to the public. In response to television newscasts on defendant Cox Broadcasting Corporation's station ("Cox") in which the victim was identified by name, plaintiff Cohen, the father of the victim, brought an action against the newsman and Cox in Georgia state court for invasion of privacy, grounding his cause of action on a Georgia criminal statute making it a misdemeanor to publish or broadcast the name or identity of any rape victim. The trial court, rejecting the defendants' claims that the broadcasts were privileged under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, held that the Georgia criminal statute gave a civil remedy to those injured by its violation, and granted summary judgment for Cohn as to liability. On appeal, the state 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 defendants. On a motion for rehearing, defendants contended that a rape victim's name was a matter of public interest and hence could be published with impunity, but the state 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. Defendants were granted a writ of certiorari.

Issue:

Consistent with the First and Fourteenth Amendments, could a state extend a cause of action for damages for invasion of privacy caused by the publication of the name of a deceased rape victim that was publicly revealed in connection with the prosecution of the crime?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of the United States reversed the state supreme court's judgment. The court ruled that the protection of freedom of the press under the First and Fourteenth Amendments barred the state from making Cox's television broadcasts the basis of civil liability when there was no contention that the rape victim's name had been obtained in an improper fashion or that it was not on an official court document open to public inspection.

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