Media Law Handbook



10. What constitutes intentional infliction of emotional distress?
8. What legal rules govern false light cases?

9. What legal rules govern private facts cases?

Privacy claims that arise out of the publication of truthful, embarrassing private facts reflect most faithfully “the right to be let alone” on which Warren and Brandeis based their concept of privacy.  This tort implicitly acknowledges and reflects sympathy for the fact that most of us are aware of facts about ourselves that we would prefer not to share with the world at large.  At the same time, it is a tort that, as the Oregon Supreme Court has observed, singles out the press for punishment that is not applied “to gossip-mongers in neighborhood taverns or card parties, to letter writers or telephone tattlers.”[49] 

The elements of a private facts claim are defined as follows:

One who gives publicity to a matter concerning the private life of another is subject to liability to the other for invasion of privacy, if the matter publicized is of a kind that (a) would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and (b) is not of a legitimate concern to the public. [50] 

This definition is subject to considerable interpretation.  What, for example, is “a matter concerning the private life of another”?  The Restatement of Torts, a legal treatise that attempts to explain the elements and characteristics of the various kinds of tort claims, cites sexual relations, family quarrels, humiliating illnesses and some details of a person’s past “that he would rather forget.” [51] 

Because the tort protects only against the publication of matters that are not “of legitimate concern to the public,” the media cannot be held liable for publishing information that is newsworthy, even if it is so intimate and personal that its publication would otherwise be “highly offensive.”  However, newsworthiness is an amorphous concept, which, like obscenity, varies from one locality to another.

One of the best-known private facts cases, and one that illustrates vividly some of the obstacles facing anyone who files an invasion of privacy claim of this type, is Sipple v. Chronicle Publishing Co. [52]   The case arose when a woman named Sara Jane Moore attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in San Francisco in 1975.  Oliver Sipple was standing next to Ms. Moore and grabbed her arm just as she was about to shoot the president.  Herb Caen, a well-known columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote about the reaction to Sipple’s heroism within San Francisco’s gay community, of which Sipple was a prominent member.  After Caen’s column appeared, other newspaper articles mentioned Sipple’s involvement in San Francisco’s gay community.  Some of these articles apparently were read by Sipple’s family members, who lived elsewhere in the United States and were not previously aware of his homosexuality.  On these facts, the California courts threw out Sipple’s suit against the newspaper for publishing truthful but embarrassing private facts about him.  The courts reasoned that because Sipple’s sexual orientation was widely known in San Francisco, where he lived, he could not claim that his homosexuality was a private matter elsewhere. [53] 

Because private facts claims are almost always directed against the press and because such claims can result in the recovery of damages for truthful publications, private facts suits raise serious First Amendment issues.  In 1988, this “tension” between such claims and freedom of the press was one of the factors that caused the N.C. Supreme Court to refuse to recognize private facts claims in Hall v. Post[54] 

Hall v. Post arose after The Salisbury Post published a human-interest story in 1984 under the headline “Ex-Carny Seeks Baby Abandoned 17 Years Ago.”  The story recounted the search by a Wisconsin couple, Lee and Aledith Gottschalk, for a daughter Mrs. Gottschalk and her former husband had abandoned in Salisbury in 1967.  The article described Mrs. Gottschalk’s previous marriage to a carnival barker named Clarence Maxson, the birth of their daughter in 1967, their abandonment of the child at the age of four months, various events in Mrs. Gottschalk’s life during the ensuing 17 years and her return to Rowan County to look for her child.  The article reported that Maxson had made arrangements in 1967 for a babysitter to keep the child for a few weeks while he and his wife moved on with the carnival.  After describing Mrs. Gottschalk’s futile search for her daughter, the article concluded by asking readers who had information about the daughter’s whereabouts to contact the Gottschalks at a local motel.

After the Post’s story appeared, several people called the motel, identified the child in the story as Susie Hall, the adopted daughter of Mary Hall, and provided the Gottschalks with the family’s address and telephone number.  A follow-up story published in the Post two days later reported that the Gottschalks had located Susie and her adoptive mother and had talked with them on the telephone and through an intermediary.  However, Mrs. Hall had refused to permit them to visit Susie.

In 1985, both Mary and Susie Hall filed suit alleging that the Post had invaded their privacy by publishing previously private information about Susie’s background and adoptive status.  The suit claimed that they had fled their home in order to avoid public attention resulting from the newspaper articles and that both had sought psychiatric care as a result of the unwanted publicity.

The trial court threw out the Halls’ suit because the Post produced affidavits from friends, neighbors and former co-workers saying that Mary Hall had voluntarily disclosed the facts about Susie’s background and her adoptive status.  Mary and Susie Hall appealed, and the N.C. Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, holding that the plaintiffs had stated valid private facts claims and that they were entitled to a jury trial. [55] 

At the request of the Post, the Supreme Court of North Carolina agreed to hear the case.  In 1988 the court ruled, 5-2, that the private facts tort would not be recognized as part of the common law of North Carolina. [56]  The court’s rejection of the private facts tort, like its earlier refusal to recognize false light claims, hinged on the court’s perception that the tort would duplicate or overlap existing claims for relief (especially intentional infliction of emotional distress) and that it would add to the “tension” between the First Amendment and the law of torts.[57]

North Carolina apparently is the only state whose highest court has specifically declined to recognize both private facts claims and false light claims.  Both the results and the reasoning in Renwick v. News and Observer Publishing Co. and Hall v. Post place North Carolina outside the mainstream of American jurisprudence.  Consequently, journalists and broadcasters in North Carolina have little reason to fear suits for these types of invasion of privacy.  As noted above, however, there can be consequences if an individual posts something online that is viewed in another state.[58] 


[49] Anderson v. Fisher Broad. Co., Inc., 712 P.2d 803,809 (Ore. 1986).

[50] Restatement (Second) of Torts §652D (1977).

[51] Id. at §652B.

[52] Sipple v. Chronicle Publ'g Co., 154 Cal. App. 3d 1040 (1984).

[53] Id. at 669.

[54] Hall v. Post, 323 N.C. 259 (1988).  See also, Burgess v. Busby, 142 N.C. App. 393, 405 (March 20, 2001) (“North Carolina does not recognize a cause of action for the invasion of privacy by disclosure of private facts.”)

[55] Hall v. Post, 85 N.C. App. 610 (1987).

[56] Hall v. Post, 323 N.C. 259.

[57] Id. at 265.

[58] The law of when a defendant can be sued in a particular state for information posted in another state is not uniform.  Generally speaking, however, courts require something more than a posting being available online.  The N.C. Court of Appeals has adopted a test articulated by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that the dispositive question is “whether the defendant ‘through the Internet postings, manifest[ed] an intent to target and focus on [the forum state's] readers.’”  Dailey v. Popma, 191 N.C. App. 64, 72, (2008)(quoting  Young v. New Haven Advocate, 315 F.3d 256 (4th Cir.2002), cert. denied, 538 U.S. 1035, 123 S. Ct. 2092, 155 L.Ed.2d 1065 (2003)).

10. What constitutes intentional infliction of emotional distress?
8. What legal rules govern false light cases?

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