The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Distributing Government-Released Autopsy Photos in Controversial Case Isn't Tortious


So the Tennessee Court of Appeals held yesterday, in Andreacchio v. Hamilton (in an opinion by Chief Judge D. Michael Swiney, joined by Judges Andy Bennett and Kenny Armstrong):

In February 2014, Plaintiffs' son, Christian Andreacchio, died in Meridian, Mississippi. The Meridian Police Department ruled his death a suicide. However, Plaintiffs contend that their son was murdered. Plaintiffs contend further that the Meridian Police Department conducted an incompetent investigation. Plaintiffs have, among other things, participated in an audio podcast called "Culpable" and appeared on the television show "Crime Watch Daily with Chris Hansen."

In contrast, Defendant has spoken out in support of the Meridian Police Department's conclusion that Christian Andreacchio's death was a suicide. Defendant created a Facebook page called "Unjustifiable" to counter Plaintiffs' assertions. In this context, Defendant allegedly shared Christian Andreacchio's autopsy photographs as well as some of Christian's text messages. Both the autopsy photographs and text messages were public records released by the Mississippi Attorney General's Office.

Plaintiffs sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress, but the court said no:

Plaintiffs … cite … Reid v. Pierce County (Wash. 1998), from the Supreme Court of Washington. In Reid, which involved multiple consolidated cases, government employees took photographs of the autopsy of former Washington governor Dixy Lee Ray and showed them at cocktail parties. The Supreme Court of Washington stated that "the conduct complained of in the cases before us is the type that would cause a reasonable person to exclaim, 'outrageous,'…." Plaintiffs argue that a jury comprised of reasonable persons from Dickson County likely would reach the same conclusion as did the Supreme Court of Washington. The Reid Court ultimately held that the plaintiffs therein could maintain an action for invasion of privacy under the common law, stating:

We hold the immediate relatives of a decedent have a protectable privacy interest in the autopsy records of the decedent. That protectable privacy interest is grounded in maintaining the dignity of the deceased. We also hold the trial court erred in granting the County's CR 12(b)(6) and summary judgment motions on this issue. The County's actions in these cases are sufficiently egregious to enable the families of the deceased to maintain their own action. Plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to require trial on this issue….

[W]e conclude that the jurisprudence protecting the sharing of truthful information regarding matters of public significance … is more instructive to the appeal at bar than Reid, which in any event is not controlling law in Tennessee. The facts of Reid differ from the facts of the present case, as well. As Plaintiffs themselves acknowledged, the investigation into Christian Andreacchio's death is a matter of public concern. Indeed, whether the official investigation into Christian Andreacchio's death was mishandled, as Plaintiffs have argued, is a matter of public significance.

Plaintiffs have publicly expressed their views on the matter, as is their right. Defendant has publicly expressed a contrary view, as is his right. This is the sort of "free communication of thoughts and opinions" protected by Article 1, Section 19 of the Tennessee Constitution. It was within this context that Defendant is alleged to have distributed Christian Andreacchio's autopsy photographs online.

There is no hint in the record that Defendant obtained these photographs by unlawful means. On the contrary, they were public records obtained through the Mississippi Attorney General's Office. Further, there is no suggestion that the photographs were altered or manipulated in any way. Defendant thus is alleged to have disseminated truthful information—public records from a sister state, no less—concerning a matter of public significance. Without more, this activity cannot be deemed "outrageous" in the legal sense. Rather, it is free expression….

Plaintiffs' revulsion at, and opposition to, the online distribution of photographs of their deceased son's body is, of course, completely understandable. Respectfully, however, that is not dispositive of the constitutional issues at stake. Under … the First Amendment …, Defendant cannot be held liable for sharing truthful information, here public records, concerning the investigation into Christian Andreacchio's death, a matter of public significance. That the truthful information concerning this matter of public significance is of a deeply sensitive nature neither makes the information any less truthful nor makes the matter any less publicly significant.