By: Jon Sarche, Associated Press Writer
(AP) The Colorado Supreme Court has reversed a jury verdict awarding $106,507 to a man who said the Rocky Mountain News falsely portrayed him as a member of a crime family.
The court said the claim by Manuel “Eddie” Bueno that his privacy was violated by an August 1994 newspaper article was based on a legal principle not recognized in Colorado. It also said that if the verdict had been allowed to stand, it would have had a chilling effect on the right to free speech and free press.
Bueno was mentioned in an article headlined “Denver’s Biggest Crime Family.” It included a family tree with photographs of 18 Bueno siblings, 15 of whom have criminal records.
The article said Eddie Bueno and his brother Freddie had stayed out of trouble, but a Denver District Court jury found in May 1997 that the newspaper unfairly lumped Eddie Bueno in with his other siblings. The trial court dismissed the defamation part of Bueno’s claim, but the jury decided the story invaded Bueno’s privacy by portraying him in a “false light.”
The Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the verdict in March 2000.
But in Monday’s 4-3 ruling, the state Supreme Court said the “false light” invasion of privacy theory is not recognized as grounds for a lawsuit in Colorado, largely duplicates the defamation law, and could have a chilling effect on constitutional freedoms.
“This is a major victory for free speech and a free press in Colorado,” said John Temple, the newspaper’s editor.
Bruce Sanford, one of the newspaper’s attorneys, said the ruling is a continuation of the state’s strong tradition of protecting First Amendment rights. “The danger here is that people in ordinary conversation or journalists in writing news reports can get hauled in to court because of some vague claim or because someone is offended or feels slighted,” Sanford said.
The Supreme Court noted that 30 other states do recognize “false light” invasion of privacy, but Sanford said it is legally vague.
There was no comment from Bueno’s attorney, who did not immediately returned a message left Wednesday.
The Supreme Court said the likelihood that “false light” could chill freedom of press and speech was greater than the likelihood that a plaintiff would be left without an opportunity to seek damages under defamation law.
“Although we, as readers or viewers of the news, sometimes regret excesses or empathize with individuals whose unfortunate plights are exploited, we nonetheless rely heavily upon open and full disclosure,” the ruling said. “We are comfortable that existing law adequately protects us from false publications, from cavalier reporting, or from malice.”
In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey and two other justices said the majority’s decision unnecessarily stripped people of privacy protections. Mullarkey wrote that the court should restrict damages available under claims like Bueno’s rather than throw out the ability to seek damages.
“Bueno lost his privacy because a newspaper published a sensational story wrongly including him in the caste of criminals,” Mullarkey wrote.
The court sent Bueno’s lawsuit back to the appellate court for a ruling on whether Denver District Judge Jeffrey Bayless properly dismissed Bueno’s defamation claim.
Supreme Court opinion: http://www.courts.state.co.us/supct/opinions/2001/01SC386.doc