Court backs First Amendment in radio case

The U.S. Supreme Court Monday held that a Pennsylvania radio personality airing of an illegally taped phone conversation is protected by the First Amendment from a lawsuit under wiretap laws.

Labor negotiators tried to sue Wilkes-Barre radio personality Fred Williams for airing possibly threatening remarks made during labor negotiations-a tape of which was obtained by a still-unknown source. The government supported the use of the wiretap law, and argued that such content-neutral prohibitions are necessary to protect privacy rights, and have no "censorious motive. But the 6-3 court held that the illegal conduct of another party did not overcome the First Amendment's protection about a matter of public concern.

Dissenting, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that while the majority's decision was intended to uphold speech rights, it ultimately would chill more speech as people backed off new forms of communications for fear of privacy invasion. WILK-AM radio general maanger Phil Hoover said Williams was on the air with his talk show Monday afternoon, but was not discussing the case. "We don't spike the football," Hoover said. "But it's a good day for radio and television."

"We're gratified the Supreme Court recognized the need to give greater weight to issues of public interest and that the court recognized that the need for public debate on matters of public interest outweighed personal privacy," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "We're also pleased that they recognized that it would be difficult if not impossible for the media - often far down in the chain from the illegal conduct - to determine how the information was originally obtained. This will enable the media to continue to report on matters of great public interest without worrying about how it was originally obtained when the media did not engage in the illegal conduct." - Dan Trigoboff