The NY Times has an interesting article about defamation law involving a lawsuit by a judge against a newspaper for libel. The article noted some interesting facts about the nature and cost of defamation litigation:
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On Friday, Judge James Ware, a U.S. District Judge in San Jose, CA, issued a decision in Gonzales v. Google, Inc., No. CV 06-8006MISC JW (Mar. 17, 2006), the case involving a government subpoena for Google search queries. A few days before Judge Ware released his opinion, he stated that he would be ordering Google to turn over some information, though not everything that the government was demanding. Media reports indicated a victory for the government, as these headlines suggest: “Judge Siding With Feds Over Google Porn Subpoena” (AP) and “Google Faces Order to Give Up Records” (Boston Globe).
But Judge Ware’s written decision strikes me as much more of a victory for Google and privacy than for the government.
Cutler’s blog, written under the pseudonym Washingtonienne, was a daily diary of her sex life while working as a staffer for Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio). It recounted, entertainingly and in considerable — sometimes embarrassing — detail, her ongoing relationships with six men, including [the] plaintiff. . . .
Although McClurg notes that the plaintiff “suffered a genuine wrong,” he also states that the law “appears to be against him” because he “does not allege that any of the statements about him are untrue.” McClurg notes that the plaintiff is suing under the public disclosure of private facts tort, which “provides a remedy when one publicizes private, embarrassing, non-newsworthy facts about a person in a manner that reasonable people would find highly offensive.” McClurg notes that “while Cutler’s actions may meet this standard, courts have long been hostile to such lawsuits because of a fear of inhibiting free speech.” McClurg continues:
In 1989 the court tossed out a lawsuit against a newspaper for publishing a rape victim’s name in violation of Florida law. While it stopped short of ruling that a state may never punish true speech, the test it adopted for when that can be done without violating the First Amendment is so stringent Justice Byron White lamented in dissent that the court had “obliterate[d]” the public disclosure tort.
Not so. Time after time the Supreme Court has explicitly carved out space for the public disclosure tort to exist. In the series of cases involving the First Amendment and privacy restrictions on true speech, the Court has always confined the First Amendment to speech about matters “of public significance.” The Court did this in Smith v. Daily Mail Pub. Co., 443 U.S. 97, 103 (1979) as well as its most recent case on the issue, Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001), where the Court held that “privacy concerns give way when balanced against the interest in publishing matters of public importance.” Id. at 534.
Almost lost amid the Supreme Court fireworks last week was its decision to deny certiorari on a challenge by two reporters to a grand jury subpoena for the identity of White House sources.
The imbroglio began back in 2003, when former Ambassador Joseph Wilson disputed White House claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. How outrageous! To retaliate, some White House officials leaked to several reporters the fact that his wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA agent, blowing her cover. Among the journalists receiving the information was the conservative pundit Robert Novak as well as Time Magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller.