Rodriguez v. Fox News Network, L.L.C. (8/4/2015)

August 26, 2015

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One holds that a news organization’s broadcast of a suicide on live television addressed a matter of public concern, thereby barring claims for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

JoDon Romero stole a car at gunpoint, led police on an 80-mile chase at speeds exceeding 100 miles an hour, and fired gunshots at officers in pursuit.  Fox News filmed the chase from a helicopter and broadcast the event live, without a tape delay.  JoDon pulled off the freeway, exited the car, and killed himself on live TV.  Mr. Romero’s sons, hearing about the chase, but not realizing it was their father, watched the clip on YouTube.  The boys’ mother, Angela Rodriguez, sued Fox News on their behalf for negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  Fox News moved to dismiss, claiming its broadcast was protected by the First Amendment.  The trial court granted the motion and Rodriguez appealed.

In upholding the trial court’s dismissal, the Court of Appeals explained that a complaint that implicates the freedom of the press requires close scrutiny because speech on matters of public concern is entitled to special protection.  The Court held that the broadcast clearly was a matter of public concern because the content of the broadcast depicted an armed suspect fleeing from police.  The public has a strong interest in law enforcement’s response to criminal behavior and JoDon’s crimes were “events of legitimate concern to the public.”  Moreover, Fox News aired the suicide during a news program, and there was nothing to suggest that the speech was intended to mask a personal attack against JoDon.

The Court rejected Rodriguez’s arguments that final moments in the broadcast depicting JoDon’s death were private.  The Court reasoned that the broadcast was not about a suicide, but, rather, was about a police chase that ended in a suicide.  The Court also rejected Rodriguez’s claim that Fox News was liable for not using a tape delay, holding that requiring a tape delay or that the broadcast cut away before violent moments “would chill the broadcaster’s news coverage to a degree the First Amendment does not permit.”  Finally, the Court held that because the information was generally available to the public, Rodriguez’s reliance on cases addressing the news media’s right of access to government proceedings was misplaced. 

Judge Johnsen authored the opinion; President Judge Norris and Judge Cattani concurred.