Ashley Hawkins, a student in Jon Pfeiffer’s Spring 2016 Mass Communication Law class at Pepperdine University, wrote the following essay in response to the prompt: “The freedoms of speech and press are sometimes at conflict with the right of privacy in instances such as when the newspaper publicizes personal facts about a public figure or when one person spreads a rumor about another. In cases where one right must take priority over the other, which one would you sacrifice and why?”
As President of my sorority, I serve on its judicial board, which I like to refer to as the “gossip police.” Often, the issues girls bring to us are not judicial issues; they are issues that begin with “someone told me that this person said this about me.” Issues revolve around hearsay and rumor-spreading. We often have to nicely say “there’s nothing we can do about that. Try talking to the person.” It is impossible to control what others say and there is no way we can put constraints on members of our sorority and say “never say another word about this person again.” It's unrealistic. What matters to me is the fine line between harmless gossip and intentionally starting a rumor with malice, with the intent of harming someone’s reputation and to bully them. There are rumors that are silly and harmless, and then there are the ones such as saying that someone is addicted to drugs, which if perpetuated could be harmful to the person’s reputation and limit future opportunities.
This line between gossip and malice is one that I think journalists tip-toe and often cross. Whether willingly or unwillingly, public figures submit themselves to the criticism of the masses. When you are producing work available to the public—whether you are a politician or a movie star—you are inviting the public to view your work, comment on it, and disagree with it. The media has helped perpetuate the cultural obsession with the idea of “celebrity,” and personal facts about celebrities’ lives are broadcast to the public. I don't think any celebrity entered into their career with the intention of staying out of the limelight. It is rare that someone becomes truly famous by accident. I think journalists should be allowed to report on personal details of public figures because it creates a mutually beneficial relationship. These posts can backfire but they generally make people feel like they personally know the figure and generate coverage that keeps them relevant in the minds of the public. Its why public relations careers exist—to utilize the media to help rather than harm reputation.
Most magazines cover themselves in the sense that they will include language such as, “a source close to the star said…” and “he was reportedly seen at…” that makes things seem factual but gives leeway. I think the right to personal privacy should only take priority in a case where someone does not intentionally choose to become a public figure or someone who is not benefitting in any monetary way from their private details being released. Journalists should not be allowed to print malicious information they know is inaccurate to portray someone in a negative light in order to sell more copies. If its hearsay, the journalist is obligated to portray it as just that. This keeps media accountable and protects their right to free speech, just as it protects public figures from speech that is inaccurately presented as fact that would be damaging.
Ashley is a junior at Pepperdine University majoring in Integrated Marketing Communications.
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.