Tomorrow, the Florida Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Rapp v. Jews for Jesus, a case which will have a broad impact on First Amendment rights. Mathew D. Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel, will be presenting oral argument on behalf of Jews for Jesus.
The issue before the Court is one of first impression – whether Florida courts will allow lawsuits claiming “false light invasion of privacy” which is similar to the claim of defamation, a tort recognized in Florida. While truth is a defense to defamation, it is not a defense to false light invasion of privacy, where someone can face liability for reporting even truthful information about a person if it offends that person. Some states do not recognize false light invasion of privacy because of its detrimental impact on freedom of speech and of the press.
In July 2002, Jews for Jesus sent a newsletter to its supporters and friends in which Bruce Rapp, a Jews for Jesus missionary, wrote in a “Praise Report” that his Jewish stepmother had “repeated the sinner’s prayer with me – praise God!” The newsletter also contained a prayer request for “grace and strength for new Jewish believer Edie and salvation for her husband, Marty.” After her husband’s death, Edith Rapp (Edie) sued Jews for Jesus for printing the information about her.
The lower court dismissed all of the claims raised in the lawsuit against Jews for Jesus, including the defamation and false light claims. Rapp appealed and the appeals court asked the Florida Supreme Court to answer the question of whether false light invasion of privacy is recognized in Florida. If such a claim is recognized, it will have a chilling effect on free speech, whether spoken or printed. Ministries and media outlets will be afraid of publicizing any news about any person that might possibly offend that person.
Major media organizations, including the New York Times Company, Orlando Sentinel, Sun Sentinel, Florida Press Association, ABC, Inc., ESPN, Inc., Scripps, Association of American Publishers, and Cox Enterprises, have submitted briefs to the Court in support of Liberty Counsel’s position. A brief opposing Liberty Counsel was submitted on behalf of a man who wants millions of dollars in damages from a newspaper that printed an article about him. The newspaper stated that the man killed his wife with a shotgun but did not mention until two sentences later that the shooting was ruled an accident.
The oral arguments will begin at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow. Florida State University will show the proceedings live online at http://www.wfsu.org/gavel2gavel/index.php.
False light invasion of privacy claims simply serve to fuel unnecessary litigation and will have a chilling affect on free speech and on the press. Determining what might be offensive to someone, even if truthful, would be a daunting task for a publisher. Recognizing false light claims would disproportionately impact independent media outlets and small ministries, which would lack the funds to defend themselves from even frivolous claims.