The District of Columbia recognizes a legal claim for publication of private facts. For the most part, the law in D.C. is similar to that described in the general page on publication of private facts. See that page for a full discussion of the elements of and defenses to a private facts claim. This page addresses only those aspects of D.C. law that are different from the general description.
Elements of a Private Facts Claim
In D.C., the elements of a publications of private facts claim are: (1) publication; (2) of private facts; (3) in which the public has no legitimate concern; and (4) the publication of which would cause suffering, shame, or humiliation to a person of ordinary sensibilities.
D.C. law does not impose liability for publication of facts that are "matters of legitimate public or general interest." Dresbach v. Doubleday & Co., 518 F. Supp. 1285, 1287 (D.D.C. 1981). This "newsworthiness" exception is not limited to dissemination of news about current events or public affairs, but also protects "information concerning interesting phases of human activity and embraces all issues about which information is needed or appropriate so that individuals may cope with the exigencies of their period." Vassiliades v. Garfinckel's,492 A.2d 580, 589 (D.C. 1985).
Individuals retain a zone of privacy relating to their private lives, however, and the defense will not protect the disclosure of facts unless there is a "logical nexus" (i.e., reasonable relationship) between the disclosed facts and the topic of public interest. As a general rule, private facts about public officials and celebrities are more likely of legitimate public interest than private facts about ordinary people who get involuntarily caught up in newsworthy events.
Courts applying D.C. law have found the following things, among others, to be newsworthy (i.e., of legitimate public or general interest):
- information about the plaintiff's family life as a child, in the course of a book about the plaintiff's brother murdering their parents twenty years before;
- information about an attorney's personal assets and business ventures; and
- a report about the alleged drug use of a police officer and its cover-up.
Courts applying D.C. law have found the following things to be potentially non-newsworthy:
- a child's description of a specific instance of sexual abuse; and
- "before-and-after" photographs of the plaintiff which revealed that she had undergone plastic surgery, in the context of a medical doctor's public presentation on the benefits of plastic surgery.
For discussion of additional cases, see the Reporters Committee's Photographers' Guide to Privacy: District of Columbia.
Relying on Public Documents
In the District of Columbia, you generally cannot be held liable for publishing truthful information gathered from government records that are open to public inspection. In Wolf v. Regardie, 553 A.2d 1213, 1221 (D.C. 1989), the D.C. Court of Appeals refused to impose liability on a defendant who published financial information gathered from "court files, tax ledgers, and agency records of this City and the federal government." The protection could apply to information obtained from other government records as well, both because of a potential constitutional privilege and because the information is already exposed to the public eye.
The District of Columbia recognizes consent as a defense to a publication of private facts claim. D.C. courts may recognize verbal or implied consent, but it is advisable to get it in writing whenever possible. If getting written consent is not practical, you should record try to record verbal consent using an audio or video recording device. The age of majority in D.C. is eighteen; if you interview or photograph someone under the age of eighteen, you should seek consent from the subject's parent(s) or guardian. See the general description for a more detailed discussion of release forms.
Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations in D.C. for publication of private facts claims is not entirely clear. A number of federal court decisions applying D.C. law have held that the one-year statute of limitations for defamation actions applies to claims for invasion of privacy, which includes claims for publication of private facts. D.C. Code § 12-301.