Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Privacy and Freedom of the Press in Time, Inc. v. Hill

The tension between the right to privacy and freedom of the press played out before a national audience in Time, Inc. v. Hill (1967)the first case in which the Supreme Court addressed the First Amendment implications of tort liability for invasion of privacy.

The story of the Hill case started in 1952 when a family of seven, the James Hill family, was held hostage by escaped convicts in their home. The family was trapped for nineteen hours by three fugitives who treated them politely and left them unharmed. For a few weeks, the Hills were the subjects of international media coverage. Public interest eventually died out, and the Hills went back to their ordinary, obscure lives.

In 1954, an author named Joseph Hayes published The Desperate Hours, a violent "true crime" thriller about a family held hostage in their home by three escaped convicts, based loosely on the Hills' story. The book became a bestseller and was made into an award-winning Broadway play, and later a Hollywood film starring Humphrey Bogart.

Richard Nixon (NARA)
In 1955, Life magazine ran a story on the opening of the play. The article falsely described the play as a "reenactment" of the Hills' experience. The family was devastated by the publicity, which thrust them into the media spotlight against their will and forced them to relive the upsetting event. The Hills sued Time, Inc., the publisher of Life magazine, for invasion of privacy in the New York courts. The Hills won at trial, and Time, Inc. appealed through the state's court system, then to the U.S. Supreme Court. Time, Inc. argued that the judgment for the Hills violated its rights under the First Amendment. The case came to the Court in 1965, a particularly charged moment in the histories of both privacy and freedom of speech. The Court had just decided Griswold v. Connecticut, recognizing a constitutional right to privacy, and in 1964, New York Times v. Sullivan, expanding free speech protections under the law of libel.

The attorney for the Hills was former Vice President Richard Nixon. After his failed bid for governor of California in 1962, Nixon joined a Wall Street law firm, which became Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, and Alexander.
After the oral argument in Time, Inc. v. Hill, in April 1966, a majority voted to affirm the judgment for the Hills. Chief Justice Earl Warren assigned the opinion to Justice Abe Fortas, who wrote a passionate defense of privacy and a scathing attack on the press. Life's use of the family in the story was irresponsible journalism inflicting "needless, heedless, wanton, and deliberate injury" on innocent citizens, and had no relation to the purpose of the First Amendment. Fortas argued that Griswold's constitutional right to privacy protected citizens like the Hills against "invasions of privacy" by the media: "There is...no doubt that a fundamental right of privacy exists, and that it is of constitutional stature...It is, simply stated, the right to be let alone; to live one's life as one chooses, free from assault, intrusion, or invasion except as they can be justified by the clear needs of community living under a government of law."

Justice Hugo Black ultimately changed the Court's position. Black, a free speech "absolutist," believed that any restraint on press freedom was unconstitutional. After Black's lobbying, there was a switch in votes, and a new majority voted in favor of Time, Inc. The Hills had no right to privacy, at least when it came to unwanted media publicity: "Exposure of the self to others in varying degrees is a concomitant of life in a civilized community. The risk of this exposure is an essential incident of life in a society which places a primary value on freedom of speech and of press."

Nixon, devastated by his loss in the case, told colleagues that he "never wanted to hear about the Hill case again." By then, he was immersed in the 1968 Presidential campaign.

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