Relying on Public Records…

Pennsylvania law recognizes a constitutional privilege for publishing truthful facts contained in public records. So far, Pennsylvania courts have applied this protection to information obtained from court records, but it would likely apply to other government records as well, both because of a potential constitutional privilege and because the information is already exposed to the public eye.

In Cox Broadcasting v. Cohen, 420 U.S. 469 (1975), the Supreme Court of the United States held that the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits states from imposing a penalty on the press for publishing accurate information obtained from a public court record. As a result of this case, most states recognize an absolute privilege for publication of information found in a publicly available (i.e., not sealed) court record. While the case involved traditional media, there is no reason to believe that its reasoning and holding would not extend to non-traditional journalists and other online publishers. This means that you cannot be held liable for publishing accurate facts about someone that you find in a public court record, regardless of how embarrassing they are. Note that this privilege will protect you in publishing information about past crimes (discussed above), so long as you gather your information from publicly available court records, such as an indictment or trial transcript. 


“By placing the information in the public domain on official court records, the State must be presumed to have concluded that the public interest was thereby being served. Public records by their very nature are of interest to those concerned with the administration of government, and a public benefit is performed by the reporting of the true contents of the records by the media. The freedom of the press to publish that information appears to us to be of critical importance to our type of government in which the citizenry is the final judge of the proper conduct of public business. In preserving that form of government the First and Fourteenth Amendments command nothing less than that the States may not impose sanctions on the publication of truthful information contained in official court records open to public inspection.”

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