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Cell Phone Privacy Rights v. Freedom of the Press

The Bartnicki v. Vopper case before the U.S. Supreme Court raises some serious questions about where to draw the line between personal privacy and freedom of the press. The Court heard oral arguments in December, and is now faced with the task of sorting out privacy issues surrounding third-party taping of private cellular phone conversations and the right of the press to disseminate information of public interest.

In 1993, Gloria Bartnicki, a teachers' union official in Pennsylvania, was having a conversation on her cellular phone with a fellow union official discussing pending contract negotiations. An unknown third-party taped the conversation and provided a copy to a group opposed to the teacher's demands. The group, in turn, provided a copy to a host at a local radio station who played the tape on the air. Bartnicki and the other union official sued the host of the radio program, the radio station and the individual who intercepted the call.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal and state wiretapping statutes were unconstitutional. Now, the Supreme Court is weighing whether personal privacy and the right to communicate freely and confidentially via wireless phones is greater than the right of the press to broadcast or print private conversations that are of public concern.

In this case the conversation in question was obtained illegally by a third party which raises additional questions. For example, the Court must decide if the radio station and host can be held liable for broadcasting a private conversation that they had nothing to do with intercepting and that was provided to them by a third party.

Journalists argue that they have a First Amendment right to publish information of public significance. They also maintain that increased scrutiny into their sources could stymie their efforts to report stories in a balanced and expeditious manner.

On the other hand, privacy rights advocates assert that the right to privacy and the ability to have confidential phone conversations without the fear of being recorded by an unknown third-party is paramount.

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