In a high-profile privacy lawsuit, former pro-wrestler Hulk Hogan won a $115 million jury verdict against Gawker for posting his sex video without his consent. Hulk Hogan, whose real name is TerryBollea, brought a lawsuit for invasion of privacy and other torts. Under one of the main privacy torts — public disclosure of private facts — one can be liable if one widely and publicly discloses private information about another that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person and not of legitimate concern to the public.
by Daniel J. Solove
In Sorrell vs. IMS Health, 131 S. Ct. 2653 (2011), the Supreme Court struck down Vermont’s Prescription Confidentiality Law as a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech. The Vermont law restricted the sale and marketing use of information that would identify prescribers without their consent. The Supreme Court reasoned that the Vermont law “enacts content- and speaker-based restrictions on the sale, disclosure, and use of prescriber-identifying information.” According to the Court, the statute made content-based restrictions because it singled out marketing, and the statute made speaker-based restrictions because it focused on pharmaceutical manufacturers. The Court stated: “The law on its face burdens disfavored speech by disfavored speakers.”
A common argument made to justify First Amendment restrictions on privacy torts and defamation law is that legal liability will chill the media. I am generally sympathetic to these arguments, though only to a point. I think these arguments are often overblown. An interesting point of comparison is the UK, where there is a much weaker protection of free speech and much stronger defamation law. Although the UK has not embraced all of the privacy torts recognized in the United States, it has come close, recognizing a robust tort of breach of confidence. Despite the lack of a First Amendment equivalent, and the stronger legal liability for gossip and libel, the press in the UK seems anything but chilled or cowed. Consider J.K. Rowling’s recent testimony:
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately focusing on privacy issues at schools. I find these issues fascinating, and I have been working on them in the trenches, as I created a company last year to provide tools and resources to schools to help them better address privacy problems and to develop a comprehensive privacy program (or enhance their existing privacy program). The company is called TeachPrivacy. If you’re a school official (K-12, higher ed), a teacher/professor, or a concerned parent, please contact me if you’re interested in my project.
Jessica Bennett at Newsweek brought my attention to a story about the family of the killer whale trainer (Dawn Brancheau) who was killed while training the whale at SeaWorld:
Brancheau’s family announced this week that they would seek an injunction to protect the release of the death imagery, captured by SeaWorld’s surveillance cameras on Feb. 24. And though the video has not yet been publicly released, it’s presently in the hands of the Florida Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which is investigating the woman’s death.
According to FoxNews:
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office, who now has the video, has received several calls from sources trying to obtain copies of the video, the Orlando Sentinel reported.Once the Orange County Sheriff’s Office concludes its investigation, the material would become public under Florida law. . . .
Brancheau’s family said through a spokesman that public airing of the killing would only worsen their grief.They could seek a court injunction to stop the release, at least temporarily. The family has been consulting the lawyer who represented Dale Earnhardt’s widow in a court fight over his autopsy photos.
I believe that the Brancheau family has a good case. They want to prevent the sad events that happened to the family of Nikki Catsouras, whose gruesome accident death photos started appearing all over the Internet. In that case, the court held that the family could bring common law privacy claims against the police department for improperly leaking the photographs.