It seems likely that this particular ruling is now likely to be cited against reporters quite a lot

We just recently wrote about a troubling case in the 9th Circuit in which a court tried to “balance” free speech rights against state publicity rights. Now, over in the 7th Circuit, there’s a troubling ruling that seems to suggest a particular privacy law might similarly override the First Amendment. The writeup at the Columbia Journalism Review (link in the previous sentence) is a really great overview of the case, or you canread the ruling itself.

In short, the Chicago Sun-Times published a series of reports investigating whether or not Chicago Police “manipulated” an investigation into a manslaughter case, involving a nephew of then Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley. That nephew, R.J. Vanecko, had apparently punched another man, David Koschman, leading Koschman to fall over and hit his head — leading to a brain injury from which he died a few days later. The Sun-Times report argued that the police investigation was designed more to protect Vanecko, rather than bring him to justice.

In exposing the questionable nature of the investigation, the Chicago Sun-Times highlighted the key “police lineup” that the CPD had put together, showing Vanecko and five police officers. No eyewitness picked out Vanecko, but the Sun-Times report argued that the police had chosen officers who strongly resembled Vanecko to make it difficult to pick out who really was involved. In order to make this point, reporters at the paper used a public records request to get the lineup photos, but then also got the physical information about the other officers in the photo via the state’s motor vehicle records database, controlled by the Illinois Secretary of State.

The point, obviously, was to show the physical resemblance to Vanecko. However, the officers in question sued the Sun-Times, arguing that publishing the information from the motor vehicle database, violated the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) of 1994. That law bars the disclosure of “personal information” from the various Department of Motor Vehicles’ records. It was originally passed after people had been using information in those databases to find and harass people they disagreed with politically.

The Sun-Times argued, reasonably, that the First Amendment should protect its right to publish this information. However, both the lower court and the 7th Circuit appeals court have now both disagreed.

The appeals court starts out by first noting that the information that was published — the police officers’ “approximate date of birth, height, weight, hair color, and eye color” are “personal information” as defined by the DPPA. That seems ridiculous enough already, given that those aren’t exactly things that are privateinformation for the most part. From there we get to the First Amendment analysis. First, the court says that there’s nothing unconstitutional about the DPPA’s prohibition on obtaining the information, since that doesn’t involve any expression. The Sun-Times argued that even so, the purpose here was to stifle reporting by denying the press access to such information. It pointed to the recent ACLU case we covered, where the court said a law banning the recording of policeviolated the First Amendment, but the court doesn’t buy it:

However, ACLU is distinguishable on several grounds. While the Illinois eavesdropping statute’s effect on First Amendment interests was “far from incidental” because it banned “all audio recording of any oral communication,”…, the same is not true of the DPPA’s prohibition on the acquisition of personal information from a single, isolated source. It can hardly be said that this targeted restriction renders Sun-Times’s right to publish the truthful information at issue here—much of which can be gathered from physical observation of the Officers or from other lawful sources (including, of course, a state FOIA request)—“largely ineffective.” Further, in forbidding only the act of peering into an individual’s personal government records, the DPPA protects privacy concerns not present in ACLU. If a member of the press observed one of the Officers in public—for example, during a traffic stop—he could publish any information gleaned from that interaction without offending the DPPA. By contrast, the Illinois eavesdropping statute operated as a total ban on recording police officers’ activities, even when they were “performing their duties in public places and speaking at a volume audible to bystanders.”

Read more at TECHDIRT

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