Libel Law, Kobe Bryant, And The Media

From the comments on this SoCal Law Blog post

So what is Kobe’s home address, phone number and email address? I think we should post it on the web so they he and the lady in Colorado can enjoy the same level of privacy.

Libel law may be the best guide to dealing with the current situation between Kobe Bryant and the 19 year old Vail native who accused him of rape. The right to privacy has been covered extensively recently due to the Supreme Court decision on the Texas sodomy law. There is no such thing as a blanket right to privacy. Certain actions and information that has been legislated or ruled as private exist, but the general consensus is that there is no overriding “right to privacy”.

In the case of court proceedings many portions of the proceedings are deemed as private in various states, including that name of the accused and the victim. It is safe to assume that neither the accused nor the accuser enjoy such protection under Colorado law in this case as neither is a minor. If both sides are have no expectation of complete privacy where might we turn to see how media coverage should be apportioned between the two sides: Libel Law.

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My instinct is that libel law is the closest parallel. There is a distinction between public figures (Kobe Bryant) and private figures (the accuser) in libel law. Proving libel as a public figure is much harder that as a private figure. In Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. the Supreme Court reasoned that public officials and celebrities have chosen to step into the limelight and subject themselves to public scrutiny. They need less protection (from libel) because they have more opportunities to counter false information published about them. The Powell opinion said:

Private individuals are not only more vulnerable to injury than public officials and public figures; they are also more deserving of recovery.

This explains why the tabloids concentrate on politicians, actors, athletes and rock stars, etc. Libel rules are much more lenient for celebrities. The media don’t have to be absolutely sure the story is true, so long as they don’t suspect it may be false. If you’re a public official or public figure and you hear a journalist is about to damage your reputation with a false story, run – do not walk – to the media outlet and warn them. Take a lawyer with you.

That’s what Carol Burnett did when she heard the National Enquirer was about to print a false story about her being drunk in a restaurant and arguing with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. She put the Enquirer on notice, but they published it anyway. Clear evidence, the jury decided, of malice and reckless disregard for truth. The jury awarded Burnett $1.6 million.

Kobe Bryant is a public figure; I don’t see the media or Tom Leykis publicizing his phone number, address, e-mail address, etc. If they did they would be on better legal ground than when they publish such information from the accuser. Reporting a crime does not make one a public figure. I’m not sure where the dividing line is, but as of now Kobe Bryant is a public figure, and the woman accusing him of rape is not.

Before you try to make an argument that Bryant and his accuser are not being held to the same standard, it is worth noting that under the widely litigated libel laws they would not be held to the same standards due to the public vs. private figure distinction.

Parts from Libel Law

Pissing And Moaning
Real Journalism

6 Comments

  1. SageOne July 24, 2003
  2. James Joyner July 24, 2003
  3. Kevin July 24, 2003
  4. Adam December 3, 2003
  5. Josh February 28, 2004
  6. corey April 8, 2004