Justices Protect News Media's Free Speech Rights in Cell Phone Wiretap Case

May 21, 2001 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Pennsylvania
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Monday, May 21, 2001

NEW YORK--The American Civil Liberties Union today welcomed a Supreme Court ruling saying that a radio station cannot be sued for airing a cell phone conversation that addresses matters of public concern but was illegally taped by a third party.

""Similar issues were raised around the alleged theft of the Pentagon Papers when they were published in The New York Times,"" said Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the ACLU. ""Today's decision once again reaffirms the First Amendment right of the media to publish and broadcast information of public concern.""

""The ACLU believes that the constitutional way to protect the privacy of telephone conversations is to punish the people who intercept them and not for the government to interfere with what newspapers choose to publish and radio stations choose to broadcast,"" Shapiro added.

The Court today agreed. ""A stranger's illegal conduct does not suffice to remove the First Amendment shield from speech about a matter of public concern,"" Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the 6-3 majority.

The case involved a Pennsylvania radio station that was sued for broadcasting the contents of an illegally wiretapped conversation between two union officials who were using a cell phone to discuss their negotiating strategy in an ongoing labor dispute with the city.

There was no claim that the radio station had anything to do with the illegal wiretap itself, Shapiro noted, adding that the ACLU vigorously opposes illegal wiretapping by private parties as well as expanded government wiretapping..

In a 1998 report, Big Brother in the Wires: Wiretapping in the Digital Age, the ACLU argued that government restrictions on powerful encryption leave its citizens vulnerable to illegal wiretapping.

""Without strong encryption,"" the report said, ""there will be no way to protect private communications from snooping, whether by the government, by business competitors, by terrorists, or by nosy neighbors, hackers and thieves.""

The ACLU friend-of-the-court brief in today's case, Bartnicki v. Vopper, Nos. 99-1687 and 99-1728, is online at http://archive.aclu.org/court/bartnicki.html

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