Law School Case Brief
Fla. Star v. B. J. F. - 491 U.S. 524, 109 S. Ct. 2603 (1989)
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. According the press the ample protection provided by that principle is supported by at least three separate considerations, in addition to, of course, the overarching public interest, secured by the Constitution, in the dissemination of truth.
The Duval County, Florida sheriff's department prepared a report on a sexual assault. The report, which identified the victim by her full name, was placed in the department's pressroom. Although the department did not restrict access either to the pressroom or to the reports made available therein, the room contained signs to the effect that the names of rape victims were not matters of public record and were not to be published. A reporter-trainee for a weekly newspaper copied the police report verbatim, including the victim's full name, and a reporter for the newspaper prepared an article, derived entirely from the copied police report, which again included the victim's full name. The newspaper published the article in violation of its own internal policy of not publishing the names of sexual offense victims.
The victim, claiming emotional distress, filed suit in the Circuit Court of Duval County against the sheriff's department and the newspaper. The victim alleged that the newspaper had violated Florida Stat. § 794.03, a Florida statute that made it unlawful to publish in any instrument of mass communication the name of the victim of a sexual offense. The department reached a pretrial settlement with the victim, but following a trial, the newspaper was found negligent and the victim was awarded compensatory and punitive damages. The District Court of Appeal of Florida, First District, affirmed, and the Supreme Court of Florida denied review. The newspaper claimed, among other things, that imposing civil sanctions on the newspaper pursuant to § 794.03 violated the First Amendment.
Did the imposition of civil sanctions on the newspaper pursuant to § 794.03 violate the First Amendment?
The Court held that imposing damages on the newspaper for the publication of the police report, including the victim’s full name, violated the First Amendment. According to the Court, 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. In the case at bar, the actual news article published by the newspaper was accurate, and the newspaper lawfully obtained the victim’s name from the government. The fact that state officials were 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 the victim’s name to be published did not make it unlawful for the newspaper to have received the information, and Florida has taken no steps to proscribe such receipt. Moreover, imposing liability on the newspaper did 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 were highly significant, imposing liability on the newspaper in this case was too precipitous a means of advancing those interests.
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