Global Freedom of Expression

Sidis v. F-R Pub. Corp.

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Press / Newspapers
  • Date of Decision
    July 22, 1940
  • Outcome
    Affirmed Lower Court
  • Case Number
    113 F.2d 806 (1940)
  • 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
    Public Interest, Public Figures

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that a magazine article about a once-famous prodigy did not violate his privacy. William James Sidis, who had gained fame as a child and teenager but pursued a more ordinary life as an adult, initiated the proceedings, alleging that The New Yorker magazine had unveiled details about his current life and thus violated his right to privacy. The Court reasoned that scrutiny about Sidis’s life could be of public concern and was hence justified due to his earlier publicity. The Court also held that no illegal use of Sidis’s name, picture, and portrait for trade or advertisement purposes had occurred.


On August 14, 1937, The New Yorker magazine published a brief sketch and cartoon about William James Sidis, who had been “a famous child prodigy in 1910” [p. 2]: at age 11, Sidis “lectured to distinguished mathematicians on the subject of Four-Dimensional Bodies” [p. 2]; at age 16, he graduated from Harvard, thus gathering considerable public attention. The New Yorker made further references to Sidis in the issue of December 25, 1937, “and in a newspaper advertisement announcing the August 14 issue” [p. 2].

The sketch described Sidis’s early accomplishments in the field of mathematics, his early-life notoriety “and the revulsion which Sidis thereafter felt for his former life of fame and study” [p. 2].  The article referred to Sidis’s attempts at concealing his identity and his work “as an insignificant clerk who would not need to employ unusual mathematical talents” [p. 2]. The magazine also commented on his room, manner of speech, and habits. Alongside the biographical sketch was “a small cartoon showing the genius of eleven years lecturing to a group of astounded professors” [p. 3].

Sidis, who had succeeded at avoiding the public gaze until The New Yorker’s articles, initiated proceedings “against the publisher, F-R Publishing Corporation” [p. 1] before a district court. The complaint stated three causes of action: 1) the plaintiff submitted that his privacy was violated, 2) the plaintiff maintained there was an “infringement of the rights afforded [to] him under §§ 50 and 51 of the N. Y. Civil Rights Law” [p. 1], and 3) the plaintiff argued that the publications were an act of malicious libel.

The defendant filed a motion to dismiss the first two causes of action, which were granted by the District Court. The plaintiff appealed the Court’s order of dismissal before the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Decision Overview

Circuit Judge Clarke delivered the opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Two main issues regarding freedom of expression arose before the Court. The first one was whether The New Yorker’s publication of a biographical sketch and cartoon about Sidis violated his privacy. The other one was whether the publication and the newspaper advertisement that had announced it violated paras. 50 and 51 of the N. Y. Civil Rights Law. The Law states that “a person, firm or corporation that uses for advertising purposes, or for the purposes of trade, the name, portrait or picture of any living person without having first obtained the written consent of such person, or if a minor of his or her parent or guardian, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

Addressing the first issue, the Court stated that no case law went “so far as to prevent a newspaper or magazine from publishing the truth about a person, however intimate, revealing, or harmful the truth may be” [p. 3]. The Court acknowledged that the right to privacy stemmed from an influential article written by Warren and Brandeis titled “The Right to Privacy” (1890). The Court referenced the piece, noting its authors “realized that the interest of the individual in privacy must inevitably conflict with the interest of the public in news” [p. 4]. Following Warren and Brandeis’s reasoning, the Court stressed that some public figures, such as public officers, had to sacrifice part of their privacy in favor of scrutiny, yet that did not mean the public officers had to be stripped bare of their right to privacy. “In general, then, the matters of which the publication should be repressed may be described as those which concern the private life, habits, acts, and relations of an individual, and have no legitimate connection with his fitness for a public office,” [p. 4] the Court quoted from Warren and Brandeis’s article. The Court described the abovementioned standards as strict and stated that, under their guidance, the plaintiff’s privacy had been invaded as Sidis was “neither politician, public administrator, nor statesman” [p. 4]. Likewise, the Court acknowledged that the details disclosed about Sidis’ life “were of the sort that Warren and Brandeis believed ‘all men alike [were] entitled to keep from popular curiosity’” [p. 4].

Despite that, the Court reasoned that intimate details about one’s private life were not necessarily protected from becoming the subject of journalistic interest. “Everyone will agree that at some point the public interest in obtaining information becomes dominant over the individual’s desire for privacy,” [p. 4] the Court noted. Just as Warren and Brandeis were willing to accept that the public officers’ privacy could be scrutinized, the Court was willing to go further, stating, “[A]t least we would permit limited scrutiny of the ‘private’ life of any person who has achieved, or has had thrust upon him, the questionable and indefinable status of a ‘public figure’” [p. 5]. The Court found the plaintiff fitting that category since Sidis’s personality and achievements made public attention permissible and justified the intellectual interest of newspapers, even if Sidis loathed the scrutiny.

Hence, the Court held that the plaintiff’s subsequent story remained a matter of public concern. The Court stressed that “the article in The New Yorker sketched the life of an unusual personality, and it possessed considerable popular news interest” [p. 5]. The Court refrained from commenting on whether the newsworthiness of published matters could always constitute a defense against claims for privacy violations, given that some “revelations may be so intimate and so unwarranted in view of the victim’s position as to outrage the community’s notions of decency” [p. 5]. Nonetheless, in Sidis’s case, the Court reasoned that the misfortunes of public figures were matters of public interest and discussion and emphasized that “when such [were] the mores of the community, it would be unwise for a court to bar their expression in the newspapers, books, and magazines of the day” [p. 5].

Regarding the second freedom of expression issue raised, the Court held that the prohibition on using one’s name, picture, or portrait only applied in the context of advertising and trade purposes. The Court acknowledged that publishers sold commodities and made profits but stressed that, as long as the publication limited itself “to the unembroidered dissemination of facts” [p. 6], it was not contemplated within trade purposes. The Court referenced Blumenthal v. Picture Classics, Inc., 235 App. Div. 570, 257 N.Y.S. 800 to note that “publishers and motion picture producers [had] occasionally been held to transgress the statute in New York, but in each case the factual presentation was embellished by some degree of fictionalization” [p. 6]. The Court held that there was no breach of paras. 50 and 51 of the N. Y. Civil Rights Law because the New Yorker articles in question only described facts.

The Court noted that the matter of the newspaper advertisement announcing the August 14, 1937 article was different as its purpose had been advertising. Nonetheless, the Court stated that, since the advertisement had sought to promote the article about the plaintiff, “and the article itself was unobjectionable, the advertisement shar[ed] the privilege enjoyed by the article” [p. 7]. The Court stressed that the advertisement had not used Sidis’s name, picture, or portrait and thus held there had been no violation of the N.Y. Civil Rights Law.

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the decision issued by the District Court.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

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

Expands Expression

In this influential decision, the Court expanded expression having ruled that press articles about the private life of individuals could be newsworthy and justified in their intellectual interest. Thus, the Court delivered robust protection to press freedom when in collision with the right to privacy: the Court established a wide framework on what could be considered a matter of public concern, in which not only the private life of public officials appeared as the subject of scrutiny but also that of individuals who held no office yet who were —or even had been — considered public figures.

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

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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