As we discussed on this blog some time ago, an artist’s freedom of expression may trump an individual’s right to privacy. This issue has again reached the courts and this principle has been reaffirmed.
Defendant Arne Svenson surreptitiously photographed the residents of a neighboring building through its glass facade. After a year of this conduct, Svenson exhibited these photos in a gallery, including photos of private scenes, bragging that the subjects did not know they were being photographed. Plaintiffs objected, especially because some of the children that were photographed were identifiable. Svenson agreed to remove one of the photos, but not all of them. As time went on and these photos became public knowledge, plaintiffs sued Svenson, alleging invasion of privacy, among other claims. Svenson defended himself by claiming that the photographs were protected by the First Amendment. The lower court agreed, finding that the photographs were not just a business but a form of art. The family appealed.
The First Department traced the statutory background to the right to privacy law. The court noted that the broad language of the statute prohibited the use of one’s ‘”name, portrait, picture or voice'” in advertising or trade. The Court explained that the term “advertising or trade” was drafted specifically to avoid running afoul of the First Amendment, which protects news or issues impacting the public. Those exceptions, wrote the court, are also extended to items protected under the First Amendment, including artistic expression. The only practical limitations are found where a photo that was not newsworthy was sold under the guise of something newsworthy or of importance to the public, or where the relationship between the expression and the subject of the image bore no reasonable connection.
In this case, there was no real dispute that the pictures were items of art, and despite the obvious profit motivation and questionable methods in obtaining the pictures, no violation of plaintiff’s privacy could be found.