Justices decline to shield CNN from liability in `ride-along' suit

Journalists could be sued if they accompany police raiding homes, businesses

June 02, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, exposing journalists to potential new legal risks, raised the prospect yesterday that news crews could face lawsuits seeking damages if they accompany police inside private homes or businesses.

A week after ruling that police act unconstitutionally when they let reporters and photographers ride along during arrests or searches on private property, the court left the impression that the news media might have to share that liability.

Without comment, the justices declined to hear an appeal by Cable News Network in the case of CNN vs. Berger. The network was seeking to head off a trial of a lawsuit that alleged that CNN invaded a Montana couple's privacy by teaming up with federal wildlife agents during a raid on their ranch. The raid followed a tip that protected wildlife was being killed there.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in San Francisco, ruled in late 1997 that the couple could sue CNN. The court held that by jointly planning and carrying out the media "ride-along" to the ranch, the network became, in effect, a part of the police and could itself be sued as a "government actor."

Ordinarily, the news media could not be sued as private entities for constitutional violations. The Constitution is a curb on government power, not private action. But if treated as an adjunct of the police during a raid, the news media would be legally vulnerable, too.

CNN executives and lawyers were studying the Supreme Court's action yesterday, sorting options for defending the network when the case returns to the lower courts, according to CNN sources.

Although the Supreme Court ruled last week that police or federal agents could be sued for media ride-alongs, the justices also declared that such a right to sue did not exist in 1993, when the Montana ranch incident occurred. As a result, federal agents in the case are immune to the couple's lawsuit against them.

But CNN would be unable to share in that immunity, legal experts said, even though it is being treated as a part of the government for the purposes of the couple's case. The Supreme Court declared, in a 1992 decision, that private individuals or groups are not entitled to immunity from lawsuits that claim that the individuals or groups had a role in violating someone's constitutional rights.

CNN had asked the Supreme Court to rule that it cannot be treated as a police adjunct for ride-alongs. Its main argument was that the media, during ride-alongs, are pursuing a news-gathering function that is entirely separate from the law enforcement role that police are playing.

The court, by rejecting the appeal, refused to hear that claim, leaving CNN the option of trying to reassert the claim in lower courts.

In declining to hear a separate case yesterday, the court refused now to clear up a conflict among lower federal courts over whether students have a right, under the Constitution, to sue school districts for sexual harassment by other students.

A week ago, in a major ruling in a Georgia case, the court for the first time decided that school districts may be sued for allowing serious and continuing sexual harassment of a student by other students.

But that right to sue, the court indicated, came under Title IX of federal civil rights law. The court said nothing about whether there is a separate right, based on the Constitution, to sue for peer sexual harassment. A constitutional lawsuit would be broader in scope, and could provide more protection, than a suit under Title IX.

With lower courts divided over whether students must sue only under Title IX, a student in Upstate New York asked the justices to hear her case and resolve the split. The court rejected her plea without comment, blocking her constitutional claim but leaving the issue she sought to raise to simmer in lower courts.

Pub Date: 6/02/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.