Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524 (1989)

2012-06-22 09:38:00

Florida Star is an important free press case reinforcing the principle that the press can rarely be punished for publishing truthful, lawfully acquired information about a matter of public importance. In Florida Star, the Supreme Court refused to punish a weekly newspaper that published the name of a rape victim in violation of a state statute. The Court agreed that the statute attempted to serve the ‘‘highly significant interests’’ of protecting rape victims’ privacy and safety and encouraging victims to report rapes without fear of exposure or reprisal. But the Court majority was unwilling to hold a newspaper liable for publishing truthful information, information in B.J.F.’s case about a matter of ‘‘paramount public import: the commission, and investigation, of a violent crime which had been reported to authorities.’’ The Court did not rule that the press could never be punished for publishing truthful information, but, drawing on Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Company, the Court said only a government interest of the ‘‘highest order’’ would justify such punishment. Once again, the Court left editors to decide what to publish. The six-member majority was unwilling to hold the press responsible for publishing information that was already public, especially because it was the sheriff’s office that released the victim’s name. The Court also thought the statute was too broad, automatically punishing the press, whether or not anyone was offended or damaged by the publication. The three dissenters argued the Court’s ruling would ‘‘obliterate’’ the legal protection for a person’s ‘‘private facts.’’


References and Further Reading

  • Franklin, Mark A., David A. Anderson, and Fred H. Cate. Mass Media Law: Cases and Materials. 6th Ed. New York: Foundation Press, 2000, pp. 424–451.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Co., 443 U.S. 97 (1979)