Originally published on Advocate.com October 08 2003 12:00 AM ET
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to keep alive the invasion of privacy claim an Idaho man filed against a newspaper for publishing part of a 40-year-old court file that said--perhaps inaccurately--that he had had a sexual affair with his male cousin. The high court, acting without comment, let stand a unanimous state supreme court ruling last winter that The Idaho Statesman was constitutionally protected from the damage claim of Fred Uranga.
Uranga's attorney, John Runft, acknowledged that the federal court decision was expected, given the fraction of case reviews it grants. "Obviously, Mr. Uranga's disappointed," he said.
Uranga sued after the newspaper's 1995 publication of a story recounting the 1955 Boys of Boise homosexuality scandal. The paper included a photograph of a handwritten statement by one of the men eventually convicted. Melvin Dir's statement revealed he had had an affair with a man who later killed himself because of the scandal. Dir's statement also revealed that he had had an affair with his cousin. Fred Uranga was the cousin, but Uranga's name never appeared in the story.
The district and appellate courts threw out Uranga's claim, citing First Amendment protections, before the state supreme court initially reinstated his suit. But the state's highest court then agreed to reconsider the case and eight months later reversed itself and unanimously backed the newspaper. The justices held that there was no invasion of privacy with the publication of information from a court record that is open to the public, no matter how old that record is.
The Statesman did not immediately comment, but at the time of that state court decision, executive editor Carolyn Washburn said it was important that "the media or anyone else in the public who uses public records can have comfort in using what is in the public domain. The media are not the only ones who use public records."
The 1995 story on what the newspaper called one of the nation's "most infamous homosexual witch-hunts" was published in the midst a statewide debate over a proposed ballot initiative banning state or local laws protecting gay people from discrimination. The paper called the 1955 scandal a cautionary tale.
Uranga claimed that the information in the pictured statement was false and had never been introduced in any proceeding as evidence. He demanded a correction, but the Statesman declined, offering instead either to publish Uranga's rebuttal or to explain his position along with a statement that the newspaper had no opinion on the truth of the court document. Uranga declined both and sued.