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Thursday, December 7, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Thursday, December 7, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Sun Times Liable for Publishing DMV Records

CHICAGO (CN) - The Chicago Sun-Times has no constitutional right to publish details on police officers it obtained from motor-vehicle records, the 7th Circuit ruled.

Five police officers sued the Sun-Times after the paper published each officer's date of birth, height, weight, hair color and eye color - information it obtained from the motor-vehicle records maintained by the Office of the Illinois Secretary of State.

The information appeared in a newspaper article criticizing the Chicago police department's investigation of Mayor Richard Daley's nephew, Richard Vanecko, who stands accused in a civil suit of killing David Koschman with a single punch a decade ago.

Koschman's mother claims in court that the police conspired to cover up evidence because of Vanecko's relationship to the mayor.

Five policemen who closely resembled Vanecko in age, height, weight and complexion were placed in a lineup along with Vanecko. The department closed its investigation when eyewitnesses failed to positively identify Vanecko.

The Chicago Sun Times article questioned the legitimacy of the lineup, and argued that the strong physical resemblance between Vanecko and the officers in the lineup diminished the reliability of the lineup.

In support of that theory, the paper published photographs of the five officer "fillers," along with their personal information.

Since the Driver's Privacy Protection Act makes it unlawful to knowingly disclose personal information from a motor-vehicle record, however, a federal judge determined that this law passed First Amendment scrutiny and that the Sun Times violated it.

The 7th Circuit affirmed Friday, finding no journalistic exception to the act.

"Although the Supreme Court has commented that 'news gathering is not without its First Amendment protections,' it has repeatedly declined to confer on the media an expansive right to gather information" not available to the public generally, Judge Joel Flaum wrote for the three-judge panel.

In keeping with this reasoning, the Sun-Times does not have a special right to access and publish prohibited information from driving records, the panel found.

"Because the DPPA restricts the collection of personal in-formation from driving records irrespective of whether that information is subsequently disclosed, and because we have determined that this restriction does not violate the First Amendment, Sun-Times's acquisition of the officers' personal information is sufficient to establish an actionable violation of the statute," Flaum wrote.

The government has a valid public-safety interest in keeping driver's personal information private, the opinion states. Prior to the law's enactment, stalkers and criminals could obtain anyone's address and personal information for a nominal fee, the court noted.

"We do not opine as to whether, given a scenario involving lesser privacy concerns or in-formation of greater public significance, the delicate balance might tip in favor of disclosure," Flaum said. "We hold only that, where members of the press unlawfully obtain sensitive information that, in context, is of marginal public value, the First Amendment does not guarantee them the right to publish that information."

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