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Privacy and the Press

THE United States news media have been stalwart in promoting the privacy rights of individuals. The press is equally aggressive in guarding its own sources, refusing to compromise those who insist on anonymity in return for information on an important story. But sometimes the concept of the public's right to know clashes head-on with an individual's desire to keep private life private.

The issue has received widespread airing in controversies over whether the names of rape victims should be disclosed by the media. Is this public information or an invasion of privacy?

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Two years ago, the US Supreme Court refused to hold a Florida newspaper liable for disclosing the name of a rape victim despite a state law forbidding such publication. The high court did suggest, however, that there could be areas of personal privacy that would be protected from press intrusion.

It is still unclear whether the Supreme Court would uphold certain state laws that shield individuals from media exposure.

A recent situation in Rhode Island raises the question of media responsibility versus individual rights.

A young woman seeking a divorce also is asking anonymity regarding that divorce. Specifically, she wants to be excluded from a local newspaper's monthly listing of divorces.

Rhode Island does have a decade-old privacy law that protects individuals from ``unreasonable'' or ``offensive'' publicity. The young woman says publicity about her divorce could cause her harassment or even mental anguish.

As might be expected, individual media and press groups oppose any court-ordered or legislative restraint on publication. They cite the First Amendment and the public's right to know as sufficient reason to justify publication of personal information.

One might argue that the listing of one who has applied for a divorce, or has been granted one, lacks the significance, or the possible consequences, of naming a rape victim.

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The principle, however, is the same. The media generally has the right to disclose the identity of those victimized by sex crimes as well as those who are terminating their marriages. A state or federal law that outlawed either might be abusive or restrictive of free speech.

A more important issue, perhaps, is whether the press should use discretion in exercising this right, considering the importance of the information to the public, the possible effect of publication on individuals, and the integrity of the media process.

It is generally conceded that ``public'' individuals, that is, politicians, prominent business people, sports and theatrical figures, have a lesser right to privacy than their less famous counterparts. Vulnerability of the press to libel suits is based on this distinction between ``private'' and ``public'' persons. The theory is that the latter have thrust themselves into the limelight and cultivated public interest in their lives. Any aspect of their affairs, therefore, is subject to media scrutiny.

The last assumption, of course, is subject to debate. The private liaisons of presidential hopeful Gary Hart and the press's coverage of these activities still spark heated debate. Among the questions asked: Is every aspect of the private life of a well-known individual a matter of public information? Does a public figure enjoy even a narrow zone of privacy?

Getting back to the non-famous, it is here that media discretion is essential. The late Justice Potter Stewart's counsel that it is as important to do what is right as it is to do what we have a right to do should be heeded.

There is ample media precedent for withholding names of individuals in certain circumstances, at least for a period of time. An ethics committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors addressed this issue, among others, in the 1980s with some of the most hard-nosed media chiefs reporting decisions not to publish.

Some newspapers and electronic media have refused to disclose names of individuals who might be victims of political retaliation or even be endangered if their identities were known.

Freedom of the press is not automatically insured by stripping away personal privacy. The Bill of Rights was not written for the media but for the protection of the individual. The media thrives as it understands this.

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