Supreme Court Sides with Photojournalist in Privacy Case

Posted on 10/4/2007 by Julia Dudnik Stern | Printable Version | Comments (0)

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the March appellate-court decision that photojournalist Peter Turnley had a constitutional right to take a photo of soldier Kyle Brinlee's open casket, and Harper's Magazine had the same First Amendment right to publish it.

U.S. Army Specialist Brinlee was killed in Iraq in 2004. Turnley's photo of his body, taken during a public funeral, was published by Harper's as part of an essay comparing and contrasting the practices of burial and mourning war casualties in American and Iraqi cultures.

Though the family had a public funeral, which evidently included a section reserved for the press, Brinlee's father Robert Showler and grandparent Johnny Davidson sued both the photographer and the magazine. Showler and Davidson alleged invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and unjust enrichment among a total of seven complaints. The suit sought unspecified punitive and over $75,000 in actual damages each.

Turnley maintains that he was given permission to attend the funeral, and that no restrictions were placed on what he could photograph. The photographer says he is proud of the images and grateful to Harper's for publishing them, as well as the magazine's support during the long litigation process.

A federal judge in Oklahoma sided with Turnley and Harper's. The family appealed, but the appellate court ruled similarly, saying "fair and accurate media coverage of official public occasions is in the highest and best interest of the public" and cannot be treated as legally actionable. Turnley's images were judged to accurately depict a newsworthy event of public interest.

S. Douglas Dodd, the attorney for Harper's Magazine, said the Supreme Court decision is important for all U.S. press and citizens, because it validates the ability to cover events "without the chilling effect of successful lawsuits brought by those who disagree with the content of the stories."

Copyright © 2007 Julia Dudnik Stern. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz


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