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Invasion of Privacy

Defending the Privacy of Public Figures and Celebrities


The media is always trying to dig up personal information about public figures, whether it's reporters sniffing around for rumored dirt about presidential candidate or entertainment magazines and TV shows looking for private information about Hollywood stars.

Yet all information is not fair game. Even celebrities have some expectation of privacy.

Invasion of privacy is a common legal action.

There are some similarities with defamation, slander and libel. Public figures have less protection than private citizens.

Here's what anybody in the public eye -- or a PR professional -- should know about the basics of invasion of privacy.

U.S. law and British common law both recognize what is essentially every person's right to be left alone. Media outlets and individuals can't freely invade a person's privacy by:

  1. Disclosing private or privileged facts -- They can't release details from your health records, for example, without your permission
  2. Intrusion -- Sneaking a camera into your bedroom or hacking into your cell phone, as the British tabloid News of the World fatally did.
  3. Appropriating your name or likeness -- Using your photo and name to sell a product without your authorization, for example.

There's a fourth branch of invasion of privacy, "false light," which is frankly too close to defamation and too intricate and complicated to dive into here from a PR point of view.

Technology Makes It Easier for Snoops -- and for Celebrities

Technology figures into many invasion of privacy cases.

It's clearly an invasion of privacy for a reporter, a blogger or anybody else to hack into your email, then publish all your emails.

People do their banking online. They get emails from their doctors, their loved ones -- email is clearly private, unless you're talking about a government official's public email account they use at work.

Another example is photos.

Celebrities are constantly trying to escape more and more aggressive paparazzi, who are becoming more and more aggressive to the point of causing car wrecks and fist-fights. Supermodel Naomi Campbell sued The Mirror when it published a photo of her leaving a meeting of Narcotics Anonymous.

Business appropriating a public figure's name or likeness is also a common case. With the world economy more linked up than ever before, it's becoming tougher to police this issue. Even if the product is being sold in Wal-Mart, the company behind it might be based in Germany and the factory could be in China or India.

Some of the costs and benefits for defamation suits apply here, even if you have a clear-cut case for invasion of privacy. Do you want the details repeated for weeks or months? Is your reputation so damaged that you lost your job or can otherwise prove serious financial losses?

However, invasion of privacy cases -- with the exception of "false light," which is very close to slander and libel -- make more sense from a PR point of view than your average case of defamation.

The proof is easier to get. Photos, medical records and hacked emails or cell phones are not matters of opinion.

The evidence is better. It's easier to prove, and the fault is more clear.

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