Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn

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Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued November 11, 1974
Decided March 3, 1975
Full case name Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn
Docket nos. 73-938
Citations 420 U.S. 469 (more)
95 S. Ct. 1029, 43 L. Ed. 2d 328
Holding
The identity of a rape victim, if obtained by proper means, and the commission of a crime and facts surrounding the prosecution of that crime are matters of public concern and are protected by the First Amendment freedom of the press.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority White, joined by Burger, Brennan, Stewart, Marshall, Blackmun
Concurrence Douglas
Concurrence Powell
Dissent Rehnquist
Laws applied
First Amendment of the United States Constitution

Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469 (1975)[1] was a United States Supreme Court case involving freedom of the press. The Court held that both a Georgia Statute prohibiting the release of a rape victim's name and its common-law privacy action counterpart were unconstitutional. The case was argued on November 11, 1974 and decided on March 3, 1975.

Procedural History[edit]

In 1971, Cynthia Leslie Cohn, a 17-year-old Potter Stewart High School student, was sexually assaulted at a party and later died in Sandy Springs, Georgia, although it is unclear whether her death was the result of alcohol poisoning or murder. Six boys were initially charged with her murder and rape, although the trial judge would later drop the murder charge. Ultimately, the defendants pleaded guilty to rape. Due to the graphic nature of the crime, the media immediately jumped on the story and began following the proceedings. Thomas Wassell, a reporter for WSB-TV, approached the clerk in open court during the court proceedings in 1972 and asked for a copy of the indictment documents, which contained the name of the victim. He obtained the name and broadcast it later that night while reporting on the defendant's sentencing hearing.

Martin Cohn, the father of Leslie, sued both WSB and its reporter for publishing his daughter's name. He claimed the publication violated both Georgia's shield law and his common-law right to privacy. The trial court granted summary judgement to Cohn on both claims while rejecting Cox's 1st Amendment defense.

On appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court dismissed Cohn's claim under the Shield Law, claiming it created only a criminal, not civil cause of action. However, it allowed Cohn's common-law privacy claim to stand. It rejected Cox's claims that the disclosure of the a rape victim's name was protected by the First Amendment, and compared the activity to other unprotected activities such as fraud, perjury, libel, and slander. Upon rehearing, it also ruled that the Shield Law, and by implicit extension its interpretation of common-law right to privacy, was a "legitimate limitation on the right of freedom of expression contained in the First Amendment[]" and "[t]here simply is no public interest or general concern about the identity of the victim of such a crime as will make the right to disclose the identity of the victim rise to the level of First Amendment protection." It reversed the trial court's summary judgment on the right to privacy claim, and remanded the case back to the trial court to determine if Cox had intentionally invaded Cohn's privacy. Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 200 SE 2d 127 - Georgia Supreme Court 1973.

Before the case could further proceed at the State trial court, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Cox's appeal. The Court reasoned it had jurisdiction since Georgia's Supreme Court's ruling satisfied the finality requirement as it related to Federal Issues. Also, if unreviewed, the decision was likely to harm the freedom of the press regardless of the outcome of the state court trial.

Decision of the Court[edit]

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8−1 in favor of Cox Broadcasting, holding Georgia's Shield Law and its common-law counterpart violated the First Amendment. The majority held "[t]he freedom of the press to publish that information appears to us to be of critical importance to our type of government in which the citizenry is the final judge of the proper conduct of public business. In preserving that form of government the First and Fourteenth Amendments command nothing less than that the States may not impose sanctions on the publication of truthful information contained in official court records open to public inspection." Since Cox, through its reporter, had legitimately obtained the name in open court, the later publication of the name was held to be an activity protected by the 1st Amendment.

Dissent[edit]

In his dissent, Justice Rehnquist argued the Court should not have heard the case because it lacked jurisdiction. Instead of waiting until the case finished in state court, "the Court construes § 1257 so that it may virtually rush out and meet the prospective constitutional litigant as he approaches our doors." He did not address the substantive First Amendment issues.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ 420 U.S. 469 (Text of the opinion on Findlaw.com.)