Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Whether a federal law that imposes civil liability on individuals for using or disclosing the contents of illegally intercepted communications that they did not illegally obtain, but that they knew or had reason to know were obtained illegally, violates the First Amendment rights of the defendants.


Affirmed (includes modified). Petitioning party did not receive a favorable disposition.


In May 1993, Gloria Bartnicki, chief negotiator for the Wyoming Valley West School District Teachers' Union, had a cellular phone conversation with Anthony Kane, a teacher at Wyoming Valley West High School about the contentious negotiations over the teachers' new contract. An unknown person intercepted the contents of the cellular phone conversation and gave them to defendant Jack Yocum, president of the Wyoming Valley West Taxpayers' Association an organization formed for the sole purpose of opposing the teachers' new contract. Yocum then gave the tape to a Fred Williams, a local radio show host, who goes by the name of Frederick Vopper. Vopper played portions of the cell phone conversation over the air.

Bartnicki and Kane sued Vopper, two radio stations and Yocum in federal district court in 1994 under the Federal Wiretapping Act and a similar state law. In 1995, the federal district court denied all parties' motions for summary judgment, finding there were genuine issues of material fact. The district then later certified two questions of law to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The certified questions asked whether imposing liability on the defendants, none of whom illegally intercepted the contents of the phone call, violates the First Amendment.

In 1999, a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules that the federal law imposing liability on individuals who merely disclose or use material that was illegally intercepted violates the First Amendment. The plaintiffs and the United States, which had intervened to defend the constitutionality of its law, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A court considering a challenge to an election law must balance the magnitude of the injury to the challenger's First Amendment rights against the offered justifications for the law, taking into account the extent to which the justifications make it necessary to burden the challenger's rights. Anderson v. Celebrezze, 460 U.S. 780 (1983). When the challenger's rights are subjected to severe restrictions, the regulation must be narrowly drawn to advance a compelling state interest. Illinois Elections Bd. v. Socialist Workers Party, 440 U.S. 173 (1979). When the restrictions are only reasonable and nondiscriminatory, however, the state's important regulatory interests are generally sufficient to justify the restrictions. Anderson v. Celebrezze, 460 U.S. 780 (1983).

"State action to punish the publication of truthful information seldom can satisfy constitutional concerns."Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Co., 443 U.S. 97 (1979). Privacy of communication is an important interest.Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enterprises,471 U.S. 539 (1985). The right of privacy does not generally prohibit the publication of truthful information of material that is of public interest. Samuel Warren & Louis Brandeis, The Right to Privacy, 4 Harv. L. Rev. 193, (1890).

Importance of Case

The statute as a whole does not discriminate against speech because it singles out communications based on their source rather than the subject matter of the intercepted communications. However, the specific provision at issue directly regulates pure speech because it punishes disclosure. The government must show a compelling interest to punish truthful information about matters of public concern. The normal method of deterring illegal conduct is to punish the person who engages in the illegal conduct (the illegal interceptor). The government failed to present sufficient evidence to show that punishing the discloser will dry up the market for the illegal interceptors of private communications. In balancing the competing constitutional concerns, the right of privacy should not trump the publication of truthful information about matters of public concern.

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