Publication of Private Facts in Missouri

Missouri was one of the first states to recognize a legal claim for the publication of private facts. Barber v. Time, Inc., 159 S.W.2d 291 (Mo. 1942). For the most part, the law in Missouri 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 Missouri law that are different from the general description.

Elements of a Private Facts Claim 

In Missouri, a publication of private facts claim requires proof of: (1) publication or "publicity" (2) absent any waiver or privilege, (3) of private matters in which the public has no legitimate concern, (4) so as to bring shame or humiliation to a person of ordinary sensibilities." Y.G. v. Jewish Hosp. of St. Louis, 795 S.W.2d 488 (Mo. Ct. App. 1990).

Missouri law defines "publicity" as a disclosure made to the general public or likely to reach the general public. Missouri courts have treated the oral disclosure of private facts in a public setting as sufficient "publicity" to give rise to potential liability. See Biederman's of Springfield, Inc. v. Wright, 322 S.W.2d 892 (Mo. 1959).

Missouri law recognizes a distinction between newsworthy events and "private matters" in which the public has no legitimate concern. While a topic might be newsworthy, however, this does not mean that every individual's connection or participation in that matter is newsworthy. For example, the Missouri Supreme Court held that while a plaintiff's unusual medical condition may have been a matter of public interest and thereby newsworthy, her identity was a private matter. See Barber v. Time, Inc., 159 S.W.2d 291 (Mo. 1942). Likewise, the success of a hospital's in vitro fertilization program was newsworthy, but the identity of plaintiffs participating in the program was a private matter. See Y.G. v. Jewish Hosp. of St. Louis, 795 S.W.2d 488 (Mo. Ct. App. 1990). Missouri courts have consistently ruled that medical conditions and hospital stays are private facts.

Where the police, public bodies, or legal institutions are involved, the matter will likely be one of public interest. Buller v. Pulitzer Pub. Co., 684 S.W.2d 473 (Mo. Ct. App. 1984). 

Certain details about an individual's life may fall into the public interest through legal action, police activity, or the action of other public bodies (even if that individual had no intention of making them known to the public). In Williams v. KCMO Broadcasting Div. Meredith Corp., 472 S.W.2d 1 (Mo. Ct. App. 1971), a man was filmed being put into a police car after he was arrested with five others. During a broadcast of the footage, commentary stated that three of the men would be charged in connection with a crime. Even though the plaintiff did not participate in a crime and was released without being charged, the court held that he did not have a cause of action for invasion of privacy.

If another media outlet has already disclosed information about an individual, that information will not be considered private for the purposes of a subsequent publication by another publisher. However, this does not apply to information not contained in the original publication. See Barber v. Time, Inc., 159 S.W.2d 291 (1942).

Missouri law requires plaintiffs to show that a publication shows a "serious, unreasonable, unwarranted and offensive invasion of private affiars" before damages can be awarded. Barber v. Time, Inc., 159 S.W.2d 291 (1942). Because of this requirement, a Missouri court noted that the state "places a heavier burden on the plaintiff than do many of the other jurisdictions." Williams v. KCMO Broad. Div. Meredith Corp., 472 S.W.2d 1 (Mo. Ct. App. 1971). 

Relying on Public Records

In Missouri, you generally cannot be held liable for publishing truthful information that is a matter of public record. A federal court applying Missouri law held that a publication of private facts claim could not be based on information revealed in open court proceedings. See McNally v. Pulitzer Pub. Co., 532 F.2d 69 (8th Cir. 1976). A Missouri court applied this protection to information revealed in an open meeting of a city council. See Boeke v. Williams, 721 S.W.2d 794 (Mo. Ct. App. 1986). It would likely apply to information obtained from other public government records as well. 


Missouri appears to recognize waiver (or consent) as a defense to a publication of private facts claim. However, courts have not addressed this issue in depth. 

Statute of Limitations

Missouri does not provide a statute of limitations period specific to the filing of an invasion of privacy actions, but has a general statute of limitations of five years. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 516.120. This five-year statute of limitations likely applies to causes of action for the publication of private facts. In defamation cases, Missouri applies a statute of limitations of two years. Mo. Rev. § 516.140. Missouri courts have applied this two-year statute of limitations when plaintiffs have attempted to sue for false light or invasion of privacy, but the court determines that the plaintiff's claim is actually one for defamation. See Sullivan v. Pulitzer Broad. Co., 709 S.W.2d 475 (Mo. 1986).


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