Thursday, November 9, 2017

On Invasion of Privacy: The Sipple Case

Back in the 1980s a friend of mine was complaining about the many telemarketing calls he was getting, saying he thought it "was an invasion of privacy". My response was "Of course it's an invasion of privacy. Any phone call is an invasion of privacy."

The point to keep in mind here is that if you are going to live in a society, you  necessarily will have to give up some of your privacy. The only way to have perfect privacy wold be to live by yourself on a desert island, or some other isolated place, and have no contact with the outside world.

The question is where do we draw the line between legal and illegal invasions of privacy. For a good discussion of this issue I refer you to the Oliver Sipple case, which I recently heard about on NPR's "Radio Lab" show.

Oliver Sipple was a decorated marine veteran who grabbed the arm of a would-be assassin of President Ford in San Francisco in 1975, instantly becoming a hero as he possibly saved the president's life. Part of the reporting which followed discussed the fact that he was gay.

Although Sipple was well-known to be gay in the San Francisco gay community, his family had not known until he was involuntarily outed by the media. His parents disowned him and broke all ties with him as a result. Sipple sued the San Francisco Chronicle for invasion of privacy.

The final decision in the case came in 1984, nine years after the original incident. The court rejected Sipple's claim, holding that summary judgment was proper in the case, and a trial was not necessary because the undisputed facts showed that Sipple had no legal claim.

The basic principle relied on by the court was that "When the subject-matter of the publicity is of legitimate public concern, there is no invasion of privacy." Here the newsworthiness was two-fold: one, to counter the popular perception (at that time) that gay men were timid, weak, and unheroic; and two, to raise the important question of whether President Ford's failure to promptly thank Sipple for saving his life was due to Sipple's homosexuality.

There was another, independent, basis for the court's conclusion, and that is that the facts complained of were not private. This is because Sipple was well-known in the gay community before this event. The court noted that "prior to the publication of the newspaper articles in question, appellant's homosexual orientation and participation in gay community activities had been known by hundreds of people in a variety of cities, including New York, Dallas, Houston, San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco." Hence, his sexual orientation was already in the public domain, and the articles in question "did no more than to give further publicity to matters which appellant left open to the eye of the public."

Sipple's health declined over the years, and he drank heavily. He was found dead in his apartment in 1989, with a bottle of booze next to him and his TV still on. He had often expressed regret that he had tried to foil the assassination attempt, because of the unwanted publicity it brought him.