The Internet, newsworthiness, and invasion of privacy

Has the Internet blurred the line between newsworthiness and invasion of privacy, particularly in the case of high-profile celebrities?
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By Jason Kornwitz

News at Northeastern

Has the Internet blurred the line between news­wor­thi­ness and inva­sion of pri­vacy? It’s one of the cen­tral ques­tions in the ongoing jury trial pit­ting former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan against gossip site Gawker.

In 2012, Gawker posted a short clip of Hogan, whose real name is Terry G. Bollea, having sex with his friend’s wife. Hogan, in return, filed a $100 mil­lion law­suit against Gawker, claiming a “mas­sive, highly-​​intrusive, and long-​​lasting inva­sion of [his] pri­vacy.” Gawker, mean­while, has argued that it is con­sti­tu­tion­ally pro­tected to pub­lish news­worthy infor­ma­tion about a public figure, par­tic­u­larly one like Hogan who has openly dis­cussed his sex life in books and radio interviews.

Has the Internet blurred the line between newsworthiness and invasion of privacy, particularly in the case of high-profile celebrities?
Has the Internet blurred the line between newsworthiness and invasion of privacy, particularly in the case of high-profile celebrities?

How will the out­come of this case impact future lit­i­ga­tion and the freedom of the online press? We asked Northeastern’s Jes­sica Silbey, a law pro­fessor and nation­ally rec­og­nized expert in the use of film to com­mu­ni­cate about the law, and Dale Her­beck, a com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies pro­fessor with exper­tise in com­mu­ni­ca­tion law, cyberlaw, and freedom of expression.

What is newsworthy?

Some First Amend­ment law experts believe that the out­come of the Hogan-​​Gawker case will hinge on whether the sex tape is deemed “news­worthy.” And, Her­beck said, there is good reason to believe that it will be. “The Supreme Court has never defined the word ‘news­worthy,’” he explained, “and lower courts inter­pret it as broadly as possible.”

Nar­rowing the def­i­n­i­tion of “news­worthy,” he said, could cripple press freedom and increase the media’s sus­cep­ti­bility to future lit­i­ga­tion. “If you have a narrow def­i­n­i­tion of news­wor­thi­ness,” Her­beck said, “then it will allow people to file more actions against news organizations.”

For Silbey, Hogan is clearly a person of public interest, no dif­ferent from a rock star or U.S. Olympian. As such, he must play by a dif­ferent set of rules than the average Joe. “When these people are put in the public eye,” she explained, “they lose their right to con­trol what is said about them more than pri­vate people.”

The Erin Andrews case

The Hogan-​​Gawker trial is not the only celebrity pri­vacy case that’s been making head­lines this week. On Monday, a jury awarded sports­caster Erin Andrews $55 mil­lion in her civil law­suit against a Mar­riott Hotel in Nashville, Ten­nessee, where a stalker secretly recorded nude video of her in 2008.

But the sim­i­lar­i­ties between the two cases end there, and Her­beck stopped short of equating them. “This,” he said, refer­ring to the Andrews trial, “is a classic peeping-​​tom case.” It doesn’t delve into com­plex legal issues like the Hogan-​​Gawker case, which, he explained, is taking a hard look at the gossip site’s “First Amend­ment rights to com­ment on a matter of public concern.”

According to Her­beck, the Hogan-​​Gawker case also raises ques­tions about shield laws as well as the pre­cise def­i­n­i­tion of a news orga­ni­za­tion: “Could a blogger post some­thing on the Internet and then say, ‘I’m a reporter and this is jour­nalism’ even though he is not employed by a media orga­ni­za­tion?” Her­beck wondered.

The Internet is ‘anarchic’

Silbey and Her­beck agreed that the Internet makes it easy to vio­late people’s pri­vacy. It is there that everyone can stand on his own soapbox, a plat­form from which to dis­sem­i­nate infor­ma­tion on a global scale. As Her­beck put it, “Anyone with a modem and an account can post what­ever they want.” In the pre-​​Internet days, he explained, ‘”people wrote graf­fiti on bath­room walls. Now they post stuff on the Internet.”

Silbey, for her part, ques­tioned the notion that the size of the Internet could obscure the stuff we don’t want others to see. “Although every­thing sur­vives for­ever,” she explained, “better tech­nology and better search func­tions will make it less likely obscu­rity will pro­tect us.”

For her, the Internet knows no bounds. It’s jurisdiction-​​free. “It’s anarchic.”

(This article is reprinted here with permission from News at Northeastern.)


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