SW Legal studies in Business

Illegally Taped Cell Phone Calls May Be Disclosed by Media
Description Supreme Court held that for a radio station to play a tape received from a person who illegally intercepted a cell phone call between two union leaders about negotiations did not violate the federal law generally prohibiting wiretaps since the radio station did not commit the illegal intercept and the conversation was about a matter of public concern.
Topic Constitutional Law
Key Words Free Speech; Wiretaps; Cell Phones
C A S E   S U M M A R Y
Facts During contentious collective-bargaining negotiations between a teachers' union and the local school board, an unidentified person intercepted and recorded a cell phone conversation between the union negotiator and the union president. That person gave the tape to Vopper, a radio announcer, who played the tape on the air in connection to news about the negotiations. The union heads whose call was recorded sued Vopper for playing a private conversation that had been illegally intercepted. The district court found that the federal law that generally prohibits the interception of communications had been violated and that Vopper was not protected by the First Amendment for knowingly using an illegally intercepted communication. The appeals court reversed, striking down the statute as deterring significantly more speech than necessary to protect the private interests at stake. The union leaders appealed.
Decision Affirmed. The interception of the call was unlawful and Vopper had reason to know that. However, Vopper played no role in the interception itself and his access to the information was legally obtained and the conversation dealt with a matter of public concern. The question here is, Where the publisher has lawfully obtained information from a source who obtained it unlawfully, may the government punish the ensuing publication? No. Liability for violating the statute rests with the person who intercepted the call. The parties who made the call have an interest in privacy, but that interest was lost because of the public concern about the issue they were discussing.
Citation Bartnicki v. Vopper, 121 S.C. 1753 (Sup. Ct., 2001)

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