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Public-Records Ruling Goes Discovery’s Way

The California Supreme Court has reaffirmed the right of Discovery Channel producers and others to cull public records for programming fodder.

A San Diego County, Calif., man challenged Discovery Communications Inc., alleging that the network invaded his privacy when it identified him in an episode of The Prosecutors in 2001.

Although the plaintiff, Steve Gates, was sentenced to three years in prison as an accessory after the fact, his attorneys argued that the man has led a blameless life since the crime 12 years ago, and that he is no longer a public figure.

In its opinion -- written by associate justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar and released Monday -- the high-court panel said the invasion-of-privacy claim was barred by the First Amendment based on the use by producers of public records. Free-publication rights apply to journalists just as well as to "historians," the court wrote.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs pointed to a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court case, where justices said that the rights of an unfettered press might be trumped by the rights of a felon seeking to begin a new life. But the California court said that ruling has been "fatally undermined" in several subsequent legal challenges, which have found that media have a right to use information in the public record.

The California court panel said it was reluctant to make public records generally available, then punish the press for using them. Such action would lead to "timidity and self-censorship," the decision said.