Court Refuses to Block Trial in Suit Against Times
The Supreme Court refused Monday to block a trial in an invasion-of-privacy suit by a San Diego woman who had been mentioned in a newspaper account as having discovered the body of her murdered roommate.
The woman, identified in court papers as Jane Doe, is seeking $3 million in damages from The Times, which mentioned her name in a 1981 story on the murder of Rose Rende of San Diego. The lawsuit charges that, by disclosing her name, the newspaper endangered her life because she had been seen by a fleeing suspect.
Lawyers for The Times Mirror Co., parent firm of The Times, contended that the free press clause of the First Amendment gives a newspaper a constitutional right to print accurate information about stories it deems to be newsworthy. The reporter, in testimony at a pretrial hearing, said that the county coroner’s office had supplied the woman’s name and that neither police nor coroner’s officials had said that the woman had been seen by the suspect.
Last year, a state appeals court denied a Times’ motion to dismiss the suit, ruling instead that it is up to a jury to decide whether the woman’s name should have been included in the story as newsworthy.
The Supreme Court appears to be interested in the clash between the free press right of a news organization and the privacy right of an individual. Many state courts will entertain invasion-of-privacy suits against the news media, but the Supreme Court has never squarely ruled on whether such suits are blocked by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Lawyers for The Times appealed their case to the Supreme Court last summer, and in October the justices agreed to hear a similar case from Jacksonville, Fla.
A weekly newspaper, the Jacksonville Star, in violation of state law and its own policy, printed the name of a woman who had been raped and assaulted. She filed suit and was awarded $100,000 in damages. The newspaper appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the law and the damage award are unconstitutional (Florida Star vs. B.J.F., 87-329).
Lawyers for The Times asked the justices to order a delay in the San Diego trial until the Supreme Court could rule later this year in the Jacksonville case. They said also in their emergency petition to the high court that a newspaper should not be penalized “for routine, lawful news gathering and reporting about a current crime.”
But, without comment Monday, the court denied the request (Times Mirror Co. vs. Doe, A-568). Quite often, the justices have refused to intervene in cases before trial. If the case were to result in a jury award in favor of the woman, lawyers for the newspaper still could raise their constitutional challenge in the state Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.