Global Freedom of Expression

Bartnicki v. Vopper

Closed Mixed Outcome

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Audio / Visual Broadcasting, Electronic / Internet-based Communication
  • Date of Decision
    May 21, 2001
  • Outcome
    Monetary Damages / Fines
  • Case Number
    532 U.S. 514
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Supreme (court of final appeal)
  • Type of Law
    Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Access to Public Information, Privacy, Data Protection and Retention, Surveillance
  • Tags
    Public Officials, Wiretapping, Rights of Others

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The U.S. Supreme Court absolved a radio station of liability for broadcasting a conversation between two union representatives that was recorded by a third party. The two union representatives sued a radio commentator who played a tape of a recorded conversation they had in the midst of collective bargaining negotiations. The radio station claimed that the disclosure of the conversation over the radio was protected under the First Amendment’s freedom of speech. The Court reasoned that the First Amendment protects a rebroadcast on the radio because the conversation was a matter of public concern and the radio station did nothing illegal to obtain the tape.


The Petitioners, who were two union representatives, had a cell phone conversation about their collective bargaining negotiations recorded by a third party. The conversation included a discussion about violence if the union’s demands were not met. After the union settled the matter, a radio DJ aired the recording over the radio. He did not record the conversation, nor did he know who had recorded it.

The union representatives filed a lawsuit, claiming that under federal wiretapping laws, the dissemination of their conversation was prohibited because it was illegally obtained. The federal wiretapping laws, under 18 U.S.C. § 2511(1)(c), state that any person who “intentionally discloses, or endeavors to disclose, to any other person the contents of any wire, oral, or electronic communication, knowing or having reason to know that the information was obtained through the interception of a wire, oral, or electronic communication in violation of this subsection; … shall be punished….”  One of the purposes of the statute was “to protect effectively the privacy of wire and oral communications.” US, Fed., 18 U.S.C. § 2511. The U.S. Supreme Court addressed whether the federal wiretapping statutes violated the First Amendment when the recordings are unlawfully obtained.

Decision Overview

Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court. The U.S. Supreme Court addressed the issue of “what degree of protection, if any, the First Amendment provides to speech that discloses the contents of an illegally intercepted communication?”

The Court held that the First Amendment protects a rebroadcast on the radio of an illegally intercepted cell phone conversation because the content was a matter of public concern, and therefore the media’s freedom of speech outweighed the speaker’s privacy interest. The Court opined that “state action to punish the publication of truthful information seldom can satisfy constitutional standards.”

Publishers who legally obtain information that was originally unlawfully obtained, are protected by the First Amendment, and cannot be punished. To obtain First Amendment protections, four elements must be met: (1) the publisher did not participate in intercepting the conversation; (2) the publisher acquired the information lawfully; (3) the published information must be  a matter of public concern; and (4) the information must be truthful.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Mixed Outcome

The holding did little to expand expression because it it only provided protections in limited circumstances, and after all four of the relevant elements have been established.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

Decisions of the United States Supreme Court are binding on all state and federal courts.

The decision was cited in:

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