Florida Star v. B. J. F.

PETITIONER: Florida Star
RESPONDENT: Betty Jean Freeman
LOCATION: Florida Star Newspaper

DOCKET NO.: 87-329
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: State appellate court

CITATION: 491 US 524 (1989)
ARGUED: Mar 21, 1989
DECIDED: Jun 21, 1989
GRANTED: Oct 11, 1988

George K. Rahdert - on behalf of the Appellant
Joel D. Eaton - on behalf of the Appellee

Facts of the case

A reporter for the Florida Star wrote and printed an article about Betty Jean Freedman’s rape, including her full name. The reporter obtained all of his information, including the victim’s name, from the police report. The police department did not restrict access to the pressroom or police reports, but there were several signs in the area instructing not to print victim’s names. The newspaper also had a policy of not printing the full names of victims. After the article ran, Freedman and her family received several threatening phone calls, and Freedman sought mental counseling and police protection. Freedman sued, claiming emotional distress. The district court found Florida Star guilty of negligence under a Florida law that prohibits publishing the name of a victim of a sexual offense in any instrument of mass communication. The court awarded Freedman compensatory and punitive damages. The district court of appeal affirmed and the Supreme Court of Florida denied review.


May a state impose criminal and civil sanctions on a newspaper for printing lawfully-obtained truthful information found in government records?

Media for Florida Star v. B. J. F.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 21, 1989 in Florida Star v. B. J. F.

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in No. 87-329, The Florida Star v. B.J.F.--

Mr. Rahdert, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

George K. Rahdert:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the court.

This case challenges the constitutionality of Florida statute 794.03, which imposes sanctions of a nature never sustained by this court.

794.03 is a content-based, categorical ban on the publication of the name of rape victims in the state of Florida.

This statute imposes criminal and implied civil sanctions for the publication of true information as applied here for the publication of information obtained from the public domain, which was placed there by the government.

Several aspects of this statute bear particular mention at the outset.

First, the statute applies solely to press publication and to the press's news sources.

It does not reach gossip, or other non-media forms of communication of the same information.

Second, the statute imposes a blanket ban similar to the statutory approach, which this court, rejected in the Boston Globe v. Superior Court case.

The statute makes no exceptions for the circumstances of the crime, the investigation of the crime, the prosecution of the crime for the existence of prior publicity, for disclosures of the identity of victims in court, in open court, or for other information that is already in the public domain.

Significantly, the statute does not make exception for voluntary disclosures.

By the strict terms of the statute, when Florida Senator Paula Hawkins spoke about personal experiences in this area, that was contrary to the statute, and the press reports were, as well.

It could even be applied to Harvard Law professor, Susan Estritch, writing for the Yale Law Journal.

As written, the statute is a sanction on pure speech.

An analysis applied to a very similar statute in Cox Broadcasting v. Cohn.

The sanction on pure speech is underscored by the determination of the Florida First District Court of Appeal, which ruled that the subject matter of my client's publication, newspaper publication, was not to be published as a matter of law.

The statute as applied in this case imposes a civil cause of action, and imposes negligence, per se, for publishing, again, truthful information, obtained by routine news gathering processes, and obtained from the public domain.

The implications arising from negligence, per se, are illustrated by this case.

At trial, simply on the proof of publication, the trial judge directed a verdict on liability against the newspaper, and sent the case to the jury on damages, including punitive damages on an instruction of reckless indifference.

Byron R. White:

But there were some facts in the record before he did that?

George K. Rahdert:

Your Honor, those facts were not part of his consideration.

The argument--

Byron R. White:

Well, I just asked you, were there some facts in the record, or not?

George K. Rahdert:

--I'm sorry.

There were some facts on the record.

Byron R. White:

Such as:

George K. Rahdert:

There were facts concerning--

Byron R. White:

--How the reporter got the information?

George K. Rahdert:

--The reporter... there were facts that the reporter got the information in the routine manner, a clerk-trainee-type reporter was sent down to the sheriff's press room.