Media must keep eagle eye in check

By: David Noack

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a Montana couple subjected to CNN cameras during a raid on their ranch by federal agents can sue the news network.
The nation’s top court rejected an appeal by CNN over whether the all-news cable channel should stand trial for going along with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents, who were investigating allegations that the couple had killed eagles.
This court action comes a little more than a week after the high court ruled that news media “ride-alongs” violated the Fourth Amendment’s privacy protections. That decision means that law-enforcement officials can now be sued if they let reporters and camera crews into a private residence while they are conducting an arrest or a search. News media personnel can still go on “ride-alongs,” but they can’t enter private property to witness what goes on. The decision did not address the issue of news media liability.
In a 1992 ruling, however, the court made it easier to sue private citizens who are accused of acting with government agents to violate someone’s rights.
The court said then that private citizens do not have “qualified immunity” when violating a right that was not yet clearly established because “the public interest will not be unduly impaired if private individuals are required to proceed to trial.”
The Montana case was sparked by a 1993 raid by federal agents at the ranch of Paul and Erma Berger. One of the government vehicles used in the raid had a small CNN camera on its hood, and a federal agent was wired with a hidden CNN microphone. A CNN crew also videotaped parts of the search.
The lawsuit against CNN sought civil damages for violations of the Fourth Amendment right to privacy and an injunction against the further airing of the illegally obtained video footage and sound recordings.
Paul Berger was acquitted on three felony charges of killing at least one eagle, but convicted on one misdemeanor charge of improperly applying a pesticide to sheep carcasses with the intent to kill predators. Following the conviction, CNN aired parts of the search. The couple sued the news network and the federal agents, claiming an invasion of privacy. The lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge, but a U.S. appeals court reinstated the legal action.
The appeals court described the raid as a “joint enterprise,” with CNN having a written agreement with the agents authorizing the airing of the footage on an environmental program.


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?(copyright: Editor & Publisher June 12, 1999) [Caption]

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