The Supreme Court refused Monday to consider whether California courts could allow damage suits for invasion of privacy over news articles that, while accurate, in a jury’s view lacked sufficient “social value” to be “newsworthy.”
Without comment the justices turned down an appeal by The National Enquirer, the defendant in an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit brought by the mother of an illegitimate son of the actor Eddie Murphy. The magazine disclosed the existence of the mother and a 2-year-old boy, Christian Edward Murphy, and the financial arrangements that Murphy had made for his son.
Earlier the actor declared that any children other than a daughter he had previously acknowledged were fictitious “Enquirer babies.” But he did not dispute the contents of the Enquirer article after it was published in September 1992.
The mother, Tamara Hood, filed suit under a provision of the California Constitution guaranteeing a right to privacy, as well as under a common law right to privacy as interpreted by California courts. The trial court dismissed the suit, saying that California law recognized a privilege for publishing truthful information.
But a state appeals court reinstated the suit, saying a jury should determine if the article had sufficient “social value” to be newsworthy, thus justifying the invasion of privacy.
The justices’ rejection of the magazine’s appeal Monday means that there will be a trial in state court. The fact that there has not been a final judgment against the Enquirer may have dissuaded the court from taking the case.
The Enquirer’s lawyer, John Kester, argued that the magazine should not have to face a trial and that California privacy law violated the First Amendment.
Kester said in the appeal, National Enquirer vs. Hood, No. 95-468, that the California court’s ruling had ignored “the long-recognized rule that neither courts nor juries may constitutionally act as surrogate editors in chief, substituting their own postpublication judgments on how a story should have been written.”
While the state appeals court was not completely clear on the issue, it appeared to find a privacy problem not with the Enquirer’s identification of the mother and child but with the details the article gave about Murphy’s financial arrangements for them.
While the private lives of celebrities were generally newsworthy, the court said, a jury was entitled to find that the reported facts, including a “million-dollar” trust fund, were unnecessary to the story and hence not newsworthy.
Also Monday, the court turned down an appeal by the state of Colorado from a ruling requiring it to pay for abortions for poor women whose pregnancies result from rape or incest.
The Colorado Constitution, in a provision adopted through a voter initiative in 1984, bars the use of state money to pay for abortions not necessary to save a pregnant woman’s life.
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