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The Case of the Outed Hero

On September 22, 1975, five-time divorcee, mother of four and accountant who turned to revolutionary politics, Sara Jane Moore, attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford while he was visiting San Francisco. If not for the courage of Oliver Sipple, Moore might have succeeded. Mr. Sipple, an ex-marine was in the crowd at Union Square in San Francisco. As Sara Jane Moore was about to shoot at President Ford, Sipple grabbed her arm.

The assassination attempt failed and Oliver Sipple was considered a hero. As a result of the publicity following the event, the nation was informed of Sipple’s heroism. The nation also learned that Oliver Sipple was gay. When his parents and siblings learned of Sipple’s homosexuality they shunned him.

SIpple filed a lawsuit for invasion of privacy for the disclosure of private facts against, among others, the newspaper that outed him. In the case of Sipple v. Chronicle Publishing Sipple argued that disclosing his sexual orientation was highly offensive.

Defendants countered with two arguments: (1) the facts were not private and (2) the publication was newsworthy. The Court agreed with defendants on both points.

As it turned out, Sipple was an active member of San Francisco’s gay community. He may have been in the closet when it came to his family but he frequented gay bars, marched in gay parades and if asked, would frankly admit that he was gay. The Court held that Sipple’s sexual orientation was not a private fact.

In a great statement of the obvious that doesn’t require a law degree, the Court also held that saving the life of the leader of the most powerful nation in the world is a newsworthy event.

In my next post I will discuss cases involving an embarrassed striper and bashful lovers.

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Jon Pfeiffer is an experienced entertainment and copyright trial attorney practicing in Santa Monica. Jon is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California where he teaches Media Law. COM 570 covers First Amendment issues as well as copyright, defamation and privacy.  

  • Privacy , Privacy - Private Facts
  • Nov 04, 2012

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