The tension between the right to privacy and freedom of the press played out before a national audience in Time, Inc. v. Hill
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.
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.