Bartnicki v. Vopper

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Bartnicki v. Vopper
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued December 5, 2000
Decided May 21, 2001
Full case name Bartnicki et al. v. Vopper, aka Williams, et al.
Citations 532 U.S. 514 (more)
Prior history Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
Subsequent history 200 F. 3d 109, affirmed.
A broadcaster cannot be held civilly liable for publishing documents or tapes illegally procured by a third-party.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Stevens, joined by O'Connor, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer
Concurrence Breyer, joined by O'Connor
Dissent Rehnquist, joined by Scalia, Thomas

Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001), is a United States Supreme Court case relieving a media defendant of liability for broadcasting a taped conversation of a labor official talking to other union people about a teachers' strike. At trial, the parties stipulated that the taped conversation had been illegally recorded in violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Nevertheless, the Court held the broadcast was not unlawful.

Opinion of the Court

The Court held the radio station not liable because the radio station itself did nothing illegal to obtain the tape. The case stands for the rule that media defendants are not liable even if a third party violated the law.


Justice William Rehnquist, in his dissent, was concerned with the effect that this decision would have on speech. He noted that 40 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. federal government had knowingly disclosed (i.e., published) illegally intercepted electronic communication. He also argued that that disclosure would produce a chilling effect in the creation of initial, albeit electronic, speech:

"The Court holds that all of these statutes violate the First Amendment insofar as the illegally intercepted conversation touches upon a matter of "public concern," an amorphous concept that the Court does not even attempt to define. But the Court's decision diminishes, rather than enhances, the purposes of the First Amendment, thereby chilling the speech of the millions of Americans who rely upon electronic technology to communicate each day."

Related decisions

On April 20, 2010, the Supreme Court held in United States v. Stevens (the so-called animal torture video case) that the government cannot hold criminally liable someone who distributes a tape of an illegal act that he or she was not complicit in committing, albeit with certain exceptions.

See also

External links

  • Text of Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001) is available from:  Findlaw  Justia