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SPJ Hails Supreme Court Decision in Crucial First Amendment Case


Contacts: Al Cross, SPJ President-elect, 502/875-5136 ext. 14 or across@spj.org; Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman, 406/542-4400 or ian@kpax.com

INDIANAPOLIS - The Society of Professional Journalists is praising a U.S. Supreme Court decision supporting one of the most important First Amendment matters before the court this term.

The Supreme Court handed down a 6-3 ruling Monday that allows the media to report certain newsworthy information, even if there is reason to believe that someone else obtained the information illegally.

The justices said that as long as journalists themselves do nothing illegal, the public's interest in obtaining information outweighs the privacy interests of parties from whom information is intercepted.

"It is heartening to see the high court give proper weight to the public's right to know, in a case where privacy rights were also important," said Al Cross, SPJ president-elect and the political writer and columnist for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. "In this case, there was a strong public interest in reporting the information but a weak expectation of privacy. At a time when technology is making privacy a greater issue for many Americans, we should still remember that one basis for our republic is the free flow of information."
The case before the court, Bartnicki vs. Vopper, involved a radio talk show host who repeatedly aired segments of an illegally recorded cellular phone conversation between a teacher's union president and a union negotiator. The radio show host was himself not implicated in the illegal recording of the conversation, and the identity of the person who recorded the conversation still is not known publicly.

"This decision is good news for every journalist who has wondered and worried about how to handle important information that was obtained illegally by someone else," said Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information chairman and special projects coordinator for KPAX-TV in Montana. "While journalists should follow ethical guidelines in evaluating this type of information, the court has said clearly that they should not be punished for using it."

The Society and a coalition of more than 20 media organizations filed a friend-of-the-court legal brief in the case late last year and asked the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a federal appeals court decision on the federal wiretapping statute.

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