Global Freedom of Expression

Dahlstrom v. Sun-Times Media, LLC

Closed Contracts Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Press / Newspapers
  • Date of Decision
    February 6, 2015
  • Outcome
    Law or Action Upheld
  • Case Number
    777 F.3d 937
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Appellate Court
  • Type of Law
    Civil Law, Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Press Freedom, Privacy, Data Protection and Retention
  • Tags
    Data Protection and Retention

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that the prohibition of the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act on acquisition or disclosure of personal information obtained from motor vehicle records does not violate the First Amendment right to free speech because it is a content-neutral regulation and rationally related to the government’s legitimate interest in protecting the right to privacy from unauthorized and harmful disclosures.


In 2011, the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper published a series of reports criticizing the Chicago Police Department for its handling of a homicide investigation.  Particularly, one article questioned the reliability of the Department’s line-up procedure in the investigation. It also featured the full names, dates of birth, heights, weights, hair colors, and eye colors of the police officers involved in the line-up.

The newspaper mainly obtained the identifying information of the police officers through motor vehicle records maintained by the Illinois Secretary of State. 

Subsequently, the officers brought a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois claiming that by obtaining and publishing their identifying information, the newspaper violated the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (Act).

Section 2722(a) of the Act makes it “unlawful for any person knowingly to obtain or disclose personal information [ ] from a motor vehicle record.” 

The officers requested the court to issue a declaratory judgment finding the newspaper in violation of  the Act, an injunction to permanently remove their information, as well as compensatory and punitive damages. 

The newspaper moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which a relief can be granted.  It contended that the officers’ information did not fall within the definition of “personal information” under the Act.  Alternatively, it argued that even if the information was prohibited to obtain and publish, the Act was in violation of the First Amendment right to speech. 

The District Court ruled that the challenged information was within the scope of the Act and that the prohibition on the newspaper’s obtainment and publication of the information did not violate the First Amendment.

Subsequently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit granted the newspaper’s interlocutory appeal



Decision Overview

Circuit Judge Flaum delivered the opinion of the Court.

The first issue for the Court was whether the police officers’ identifying information fell within the scope of the Act.

Under Section 2721(a) of the Act, personal information is defined as “information that identifies an individual, including an individual’s photograph, social security number, driver identification number, name, address (but not the 5–digit zip code), telephone number, and medical or disability information, but does not include information on vehicular accidents, driving violations, and driver’s status.”

The Court held that based on the plain meaning of the text, the underlying purpose of the statute, the definition of “personal information” encompassed the officers’ information published by the newspaper.  It also referenced to Reno v. Condon, 528 U.S. 141 (2000), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that the proscribed information under the Act covers “any information that identifies an individual.”  As applied to the case, the Court determined that each category of the information obtained by the newspaper, such as age, height, and eye color related to the officers’ physical appearance and helped in identifying  them.  

The second issue was whether the Act was in violation of the First Amendment right to free speech by prohibiting the newspaper from obtaining the officers’  personal information from motor vehicle records.

The Court first emphasized the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 (1972) that  that the First Amendment “does not guarantee the press a constitutional right of special access to information not available to the public generally.”  Specific to the Act’s compatibility with the First Amendment, the Court reiterated its position that “[t]here is no constitutional right to have access to particular government information, or to require openness from the bureaucracy.”  [p. 948]

Though recognized that the Act’s prohibition on disclosing the challenged information was a direct regulation of speech, the Court found it as a content neutral resrtction and rationally related to the government’s legitimate interest in preventing unauthorized acquisition of personal information from motor vehicle records.  [p. 949]   

 because its public safety goals are unrelated to the content of the regulated expression. Congress crafted the DPPA’s limitation on disclosure of personal information not because it disagreed with the message communicated by drivers’ personal details, but in order to keep individuals’ identifying information out of the hands of potential stalkers.

For foregoing reasons, the Court concluded that the Act’s prohibition on obtaining and disclosing the police officers’ personal information did not violate the First Amendment right to free speech.

It affirmed the  district court’s denial of newspaper’s motion to dismiss and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.


Decision Direction

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

Contracts Expression

The Seventh Circuit ruled that the actions by the Chicago Sun-Times, of obtaining and disclosing personal information from motor vehicles records, protected by a privacy law, were not protected by the First Amendment.

The Court recognized that was entering uncharted territory in their analysis of “what the Supreme Court has identified as a “still-open question, whether, in cases where information has been acquired unlawfully by a newspaper, government may ever punish not only the unlawful acquisition, but the ensuing publication as well.”

The Court observed that because this is an as-applied challenge, the holding is limited to the facts and circumstances of the case, and “do not opine as to whether, given a scenario involving lesser privacy concerns or information of greater public significance, the delicate balance might tip in favor of disclosure.”

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

  • U.S., Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 (1972)

    The U.S. Supreme Court held that First Amendment “does not guarantee the press a constitutional right of special access to information not available to the public generally.”

  • U.S., Press-Enter. Co. v. Super. Ct., 478 U.S. 1 (1986)

    The U.S. Supreme Court recognized limited right to access to governmental proceedings, specifically those relate to judicial process.

  • U.S., Turner Broadcasting Sys. Inc. v. FCC, 512 U.S. 622 (1994)

    According to the U.S. Supreme Court, “[T]he principal inquiry in determining content neutrality … is whether the government has adopted a regulation of speech because of [agreement or] disagreement with the message it conveys.”

  • U.S., Smith v. Daily Mail Publ'g Co., 443 U.S. 97 (1979)

    The Supreme Court has established that “if a newspaper lawfully obtains truthful information about a matter of public significance then state officials may not constitutionally punish publication of the information, absent a need to further a state interest of the highest order.”

  • U.S., L.A. Police Dep't. v. United Reporting Publ'g Corp, 528 U.S. 32 (1999)

    According to the U.S. Supreme Court, “there is no constitutional right to obtain all the information provided by FOIA laws.”

  • U.S., Globe Newspaper Co. v. Superior Court, 457 U.S. 596 (1982)

    Supreme Court has recognized a limited right of access to certain governmental proceedings, specifically those related to the judicial process.

  • U.S., ACLU of Illinois v. Alvarez, 679 F.3d 583 (7th Cir. 2012)

    The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that an Illinois statute prohibiting individuals from making audio recordings of police officers performing
    their duties in public triggered heightened First Amendment scrutiny and likely violated the First Amendment under either intermediate or strict scrutiny

  • U.S., Reno v. Condon, 528 U.S. 141 (2000)

    The U.S. Supreme Court held that scope of “personal information” of the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection proscribes as any information obtained from motor vehicle records that identifies an individual.

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.

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