A&A: When Can A Newspaper Publish Documents Meant To Be Private?

Q: I’m a freelance writer pursuing a story about another publication, but I’m concerned because much of the info we have consists of leaked internal company documents from a disgruntled ex-employee (a notice of tax lien, e-mails, bill collection notices). This is a private company, not a public or governmental entity, so I have no way of independently acquiring or verifying these same documents. Are we within our rights to use the documents in the story? They appear legitimate, but were clearly not meant for anyone other than the owner of the company we’re profiling. Please advise.

A: Although we cannot advise you as to your legal rights in this situation,the following information might be useful. Generally speaking, the freedom to gather news includes protection for receiving confidential information, so long as the reporter does not break the law to obtain it. In most cases, reporters are protected from liability for receiving information that was intended to be confidential, even if the source of the information was not supposed to disclose it.

For example, the Supreme Court held that despite a state statute requiring the government to keep the names of sexual offense victims private, it was not unlawful for a newspaper to receive (through an erroneously released police report) and publish the name of a sexual assault victim. Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524 (1989).

Under the same legal principles, reporters who receive copies of leaked documents are generally not liable for receiving them and reporting on any newsworthy contents. The primary complicating factor in these situations comes into play when the documents were obtained illegally and passed along to the media, though even in those cases reporting on the documents might be protected. See, e.g., Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001) (imposition of liability on the media for broadcasting part of a telephone conversation between two union representatives that was illegally recorded by an unknown person violated the First Amendment).

Note that in the much publicized iPhone situation, the issue seems to be whether or not the media entity can be said to have purchased stolen goods (the phone) — not that the media entity disseminated information it should not have.