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Dean Argues Key First Amendment Case Before Florida Supreme Court

April 02, 2008

Mathew D. Staver, Dean of Liberty University School of Law and Founder of Liberty Counsel, presented an oral argument recently before the Florida Supreme Court in Rapp v. Jews for Jesus, a case which will have a broad impact on the ability of churches, nonprofit groups, individuals and the media to publish without fear of retribution for offending the subject of the report.
The arguments were presented to address the sole question of whether the tort of “false light invasion of privacy” should be recognized in Florida. Dean Staver argued on behalf of Jews for Jesus that such claims have never been allowed in Florida, suppress too much First Amendment speech by having a chilling effect, and that defamation claims (where published statements must be false) are sufficient to protect persons from injury by media reports. False light claims by definition are not defamatory and may involve true statements. 

Dean Staver argued that the key consideration for the Court is to assess the need for new tort versus its risk of censoring speech. Staver argued that existing defamation torts protect people from harm to their reputation. Thus there is no need for a new tort. He also argued that the common law, statutes, and the state and federal constitutions protect freedom of speech. He stated that a new tort of false light invasion of privacy is unnecessary and will throttle free speech. 

Under a false light invasion of privacy, the statement made would not be defamatory, would not injure a person’s reputation and may be true, but if the statement caused the subject of the statement to be highly offended, the person could bring suit. Such a tort would have a chilling effect on the media and publication. 

The Rapp v. Jews for Jesus case involves a lawsuit over a newsletter report that a stepmother of Bruce Rapp, a Jews for Jesus missionary, had “repeated the sinner’s prayer.” The newsletter also requested prayer for “new Jewish believer Edie and salvation for her husband, Marty.” After Bruce’s father (Marty) died, Edith Rapp (Edie) sued Jews for Jesus for printing the information about her. The lawsuit read like a polemic against Christianity. The case was dismissed several times at the trial court. On appeal, the court upheld the dismissal but then certified to the Florida Supreme Court whether Florida law recognizes the tort of false light invasion of privacy. 

Commenting on the case, Dean Staver stated: “The First Amendment needs breathing room. Whatever is added to the field of speech restrictions to protect individuals takes away from free debate. To permit ‘false light invasion of privacy’ would smother free speech. The First Amendment recognizes that speech may be robust and protects speech that may offend.”