Suits, laws and audiotape

The name of WILK-AM talk host Fred Williams of Wilkes-Barre, Pa. will live—as the lawyers say—in perpetuity, in the nation's law books as the victor in one of the most important Supreme Court media cases in years.

"I never would have dreamed it," Williams said after last week's high-court decision that the First Amendment protected him from liability for airing a phone conversation illegally taped by a still-unknown source. "Little Fred Williams … it boggles the mind."

Fred Vopper, actually. That's Williams' real name and the one that will be cited in the future, along with local negotiator Gloria Bartnicki and union president Anthony Kane. They sued Williams and WILK-AM under federal and state wiretap law for airing a tape in which Kane said, "We're gonna have to go to [school board members'] homes … to blow off their front porches. We'll have to do some work on some of those guys."

A local activist provided the tape, Williams says, and the decision to air it was made after great deliberation.

The federal government argued that such content-neutral prohibitions are necessary to protect privacy rights and have no "censorious motive." But Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority that "a stranger's illegal conduct does not suffice to remove the First Amendment shield from speech about a matter of public concern."

Journalism groups including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Radio-Television News Directors Association praised the decision. A contrary holding could have caused a nightmare for journalists, forcing them to verify that all the information aired or published was obtained—from whatever source—legally.

But the narrow decision may leave the media still open to attacks on its own information gathering. Several recent cases have challenged reporting techniques, rather than the truth or accuracy of the report.

"This decision does not give the media the green light to engage in any illegal behavior itself," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the RCFP. Dalglish is also concerned that, in this case, "the Supreme Court is giving great weight to an individual's right to privacy," which could leave the media defending itself in cases that are not of obvious public interest, with courts making the determination.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist cited privacy in a dissent, contending that, while the majority's decision was intended to uphold speech, it ultimately would chill speech as people backed off new forms of communications.

WILK-AM and Williams' legal bills were covered by a liability policy. Sinclair Broadcasting, which owned the station during key parts of the case before selling to Entercomm, continued to oversee the litigation.