Why Justice Stevens’ fraught relationship with the First Amendment still reverberates

Justice Stevens

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The late Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens today is being hailed as a liberal beacon who took strong stands against the death penalty and in favor of gun control and limits on political spending.

But despite his well-deserved reputation as a judge who was motivated by decency and principle, his legacy with regard to the First Amendment is mixed.

For one thing, as Linda Greenhouse observed in The New York Times, Stevens in 1989 broke with his colleagues when they overturned a Texas law that banned flag-burning. “His patriotism was of the old-fashioned, unabashed variety,” wrote Greenhouse by way of explanation.

For another, on two important cases that pitted the right to privacy against freedom of the press, Stevens sided against the media. In one instance he was on the losing end. In the other, though, he wrote the majority opinion, limiting public access to government information in a decision that reverberates three decades later.

First, Stevens’ dissent. Starting with New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964, the Supreme Court began issuing a series of decisions that made it more difficult for plaintiffs to win libel suits. In the Times case, the court ruled that public officials suing for libel would have to show not only that false, defamatory material had been published about them, but that the publisher had acted with “actual malice” — that is, with the knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth. That standard was later extended to public figures as well. Then, in Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc. (1974), the court ruled that even private figures would at least have to prove negligence in addition to falsehood and defamation.

These decisions greatly strengthened freedom of the press. Still to be settled, though, was the matter of proof. Traditionally, after a plaintiff sued for libel, it was up to the publisher to prove that the material in question was true. That changed with Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. v. Hepps (1986), in which the court ruled by a five-to-four margin that it should be up to the plaintiff to prove falsity.

Stevens was outraged. In his dissent, he wrote that “in order to comprehend the full ramifications of today’s decision, we should assume that the publisher knew that it would be impossible for a court to verify or discredit the story, and that it was published for no other purpose than to destroy the reputation of the plaintiff.” He added: “I simply do not understand … why a character assassin should be given an absolute license to defame by means of statements that can be neither verified nor disproved.”

Three years later, though, Stevens was on the winning side in ruling that public records may become private in some circumstances, and that the privacy rights of an individual can sometimes outweigh the public’s right to know.

The case, Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, was decided unanimously in 1989, but it had been many years in the making. Starting in 1978, Robert Schakne, a reporter for CBS News, had been seeking FBI rap sheets about the four Medico brothers, who were alleged organized crime figures with ties to a corrupt congressman named Daniel Flood. Schakne’s case, fought on his behalf by the Reporters Committee, was thrown out in 1985 at the district court level. But a federal appeals court ruled in his favor in 1987. By the time the matter reached the Supreme Court, only one of the Medico brothers was still living. That set the stage for Justice Stevens.

The rap sheets Schakne sought consisted entirely of public records that could be searched for at courthouses and other venues. Yet Stevens wrote that they had ceased to be public because they had been compiled and computerized by the FBI. Thus, the records were covered by the privacy exemption to the federal Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

As Stevens put it, there is a “distinction … between scattered disclosure of the bits of information contained in a rap-sheet and revelation of the rap-sheet as a whole. The very fact that federal funds have been spent to prepare, index, and maintain these criminal history files demonstrates that the individual items of information in the summaries would not otherwise be ‘freely available’ either to the officials who have access to the underlying files or to the general public. Indeed, if the summaries were ‘freely available,’ there would be no reason to invoke the FOIA to obtain access to the information they contain.”

But that was only part of the test. Under FOIA, records deemed private may still be released if there is a compelling public interest in doing so. The Reporters Committee argued that disclosure of the rap sheets was warranted because the Medico brothers had dealings with Flood. Again, Stevens ruled against the committee, writing that the documents would have provided information about the Medicos rather than the government.

Stevens wrote that “although there is undoubtedly some public interest in anyone’s criminal history, especially if the history is in some way related to the subject’s dealing with a public official or agency, the FOIA’s central purpose is to ensure that the Government’s activities be opened to the sharp eye of public scrutiny, not that information about private citizens that happens to be in the warehouse of the Government be so disclosed.”

The decision was a blow against freedom of the press. Even though rap sheets by their nature are filled with falsehoods and rumors, it seemed (and still seems) absurd that government documents that could have provided information about the Medicos’ dealings with a congressman who had pled guilty to corruption charges were not made public. As Jane Kirtley, then the director of the Reporters Committee, put it at the time, the decision had “very serious implications for public access to government information. It says that today something may be a public document but tomorrow it’s not because it’s on a computer tape.”

And yet there was something admirable about Stevens’ insistence that the privacy rights of individuals should take precedence over the interests of the news media. As a journalist and as a First Amendment advocate, I wish Stevens and his fellow justices had ruled otherwise. But today we are at the mercy of a government that has been spying on us for years and of technology giants who store all kinds of personal data about us for purposes benign and otherwise. I think it says something positive about Stevens’ character that he stood up for privacy in the early days of computerized databases.

It says something, too, for the court we had and lost. Justice Stevens was a giant, and he will be missed.

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