Press freedom faces erosion in wake of court privacy rulings, expert says

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Champaign (Illinois, US), Apr.9 (ANI): A study by a University of Illinois legal expert has warned that press freedoms are eroding as courts step in to restore personal privacy battered by an explosion of tabloid reporting on the Internet and 24-hour news outlets hungry for fresh stories.

Amy Gajda, Assistant Professor of Journalism and Law, College of Law, University of Illinois, says long-held boundaries for news coverage have narrowed in a recent spate of privacy rulings, which could ultimately have a chilling effect on mainstream journalists whose watchdog role helps safeguard against corruption and other misconduct.

"It's easy to condemn journalism as a whole, feeling that something needs to be done about tabloid reporting. But restricting that sort of reporting can also restrict very legitimate news reporting, creating fear of liability that suppresses disclosures of scandals and corruption. That would ultimately be a very bad thing for society," she said.

For nearly a half-century, courts gave the media broad leeway to delve into personal lives - in deference to First Amendment rights and buoyed by respect for journalism that peaked in the wake of Watergate and other reporting triumphs, according to a research paper published in the California Law Review.

Effectively, courts declined to second-guess editorial decisions, said Gajda, a professor of law and of journalism.

The mere fact that stories were published or broadcast would be considered proof of newsworthiness - often making them privileged under law - so lawsuits seeking damages under privacy torts were routinely tossed out.

But she says courts have begun imposing their own judgments about what qualifies as news over the last decade as a dramatic surge of reality TV, celebrity coverage and tabloid reporting have muddled the line between news and entertainment, tarnishing media esteem and heightening concerns about privacy.

Gajda says one of the most worrisome cases involves a court's refusal to dismiss an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim filed by the sister of a prosecutor who committed suicide as police were about to arrest him for allegedly soliciting sex with a 13-year-old on NBC's "To Catch a Predator."

"The ruling is dangerous because journalists will be responsive to it," she said.

But she rejects arguments that journalism should abandon ethics policies to dodge similar rulings.

"That is the wrong response, especially today, when some bloggers and others clearly don't understand the need for ethics and could actually learn something from journalism's ethics codes," Gajda said.

"The more that news organizations are seen as relying on ethics and self-policing, the more likely it is that courts will stay out of the way," she said. (ANI)

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