Reporters have a love-hate relationship with privacy. As guardians of the average citizen against powerful institutions, many news organizations fashion themselves as champions of the “little guy,” yet the First Amendment imperative sometimes comes at the cost of individual privacy.
This article reviews the most salient cases balancing press and privacy rights in the modern era of journalism and concludes that the U.S. Supreme Court, in attempting to articulate concepts that protect journalism, misapplied its own precedents and ended up dramatically impairing an individual’s right of action for “false light” privacy. Had Time Inc. v. Hill, New York Times v. Sullivan and Gertz v. Welch, come before the court in a different order, we might enjoy much more vibrant privacy rights today, while also securing press freedom.
The landmark rulings of the 1960’s left a legacy of considerable confusion over application of the libel standard to press outlets covering non-public figures and require a fresh assessment as media has dramatically evolved in the intervening time period. With growing recognition of the way private lives are exposed in social media in the digital age, the tort of false light privacy might find new life if we put it into a proper perspective.