A&A: Is It Legal to Publish Personal Information Found in Court Documents?

Q: This is a question about publishing information found in documents from the Family Division of Superior Court regarding a divorce. Is it legal for us to mention the divorce in our article?

Also, is it legal for us to publish the home address of a person in connection with our investigative reporting? We found that address in the court documents of a criminal trial. There is some other information published on the website of the Secretary of State containing the principal location of the corporation run by the subject of our investigation, as well as the home addresses of its Officers, Secretary, etc. May we publish these governmental documents as well or would the best tactic be to redact that personal information?

A: In California, most court records are public records, and that usually includes most family court records concerning divorces.  As a general rule, the media have an absolute privilege in California to accurately report information obtained in public court records under Cal. Civil Code § 47(d).

Occasionally, some court records are ordered sealed by a judge. That does not appear to be the case here, but even if a judge did order that these records be sealed, if the records remained publicly available and you did nothing illegal to obtain a copy – and simply obtained a copy the way you normally obtain access to court records – then the United States Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment would generally protect you from liability for accurately reporting information in those records.  See Cox Broad. Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469, 496 (1975) (“Once true information is disclosed in public court records open to public inspection, the press cannot be sanctioned for publishing it.”); Fla. Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524, 538 (1989) (“As we have noted, where the government itself provides information to the media, it is most appropriate to assume that the government had, but failed to utilize, far more limited means of guarding against dissemination than the extreme step of punishing truthful speech. That assumption is richly borne out in this case. B.J.F.’s identity would never have come to light were it not for the erroneous, if inadvertent, inclusion by the Department of her full name in an incident report made available in a pressroom open to the public. Florida’s policy against disclosure of rape victims’ identities, reflected in § 794.03, was undercut by the Department’s failure to abide by this policy. Where, as here, the government has failed to police itself in disseminating information, it is clear under Cox Broadcasting [and other cases] that the imposition of damages against the press for its subsequent publication can hardly be said to be a narrowly tailored means of safeguarding anonymity.”).

With respect to the home address that is lawfully obtained from public records, the same general rules should apply. However, the Supreme Court has not said that the press can never be punished for accurately publishing information obtained from public records.  It is just that in most cases, the test for imposing liability will not be met.  It is possible that calculation could be different with respect to a person’s home address, even that of a public figure – or, possibly, especially that of a public figure if that information likely could, for example, lead to a break-in of the public figure’s property, or even a physical altercation at that location (it may depend, for example, on how foreseeable an intrusion or attack may be).  Even then, there would be strong arguments again imposing liability, but it is possible a court could go the other way unless there was a strong argument as to why publishing the home address was important to public interest-aspect of reporting about the pastor or his business.

This response deals with the legal ramifications of publishing as you describe. There may be separate concerns relating to journalism ethics, which we are not experts on. You might consider consulting the Society of Professional Journalists ethics guidelines; here is another resource that addresses this issue:

Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation. No attorney-client relationship has been formed by way of this response.