Saturday, November 19, 2016


If you write about other people, you need to be aware of the privacy laws and what affect they have on such stories. Although we often hear of celebrities who have sued for invasion of privacy, the most ordinary citizen is protected by the same privacy laws that protect the celebrity—protected from unauthorized use of their name, likeness or personal history. The problem is the ongoing erosion of and changes in those privacy laws.

I would like to be able to give you a simple list of guidelines—a map of sorts-- to carry you through this minefield, but unfortunately the map is as full of holes as the minefield. In each case that comes before the courts, it comes down to how the judge decides to interpret privacy laws against the rights inherent in the first Amendment.

The rights of the individual will almost always win out when what is published is very personal or intimate—and the purpose in publishing it is wholly unworthy—or if what is written is obviously inaccurate.

Generally, the law says that “one who is part of a public scene may be lawfully photographed as part of that scene,” but if the person is being shown in a negative light within the scene, it could be an invasion of their privacy.

Another problem for the writer or photographer is if what they say or photograph gives the reader a false impression of the subject. For example, using the photo of a woman to illustrate someone else’s story of indiscretions—giving the impression that she was the guilty party.

Suits for invasion of privacy are not all that common, and if a suit is brought, the plaintiff must prove there was actual malice intended on the part of the writer or photographer. So generally, if you use your common sense, do your homework, always check your sources, and write only what you know to be true, revealing identities only when necessary, you won’t need to worry about being sued.