Phone Privacy Rights v. Freedom of the Press
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.
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
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.
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.
to Legal Archive 2001