Roberson v. Rochester Folding Box Co. – Case Brief

Roberson v. Rochester Folding Box Co., 171 N.Y. 538, 64 N.E. 442 (N.Y. 1902).

Facts: Franklin Mills Co. (D) was a milling business engaged in the manufacture and sale of flour. Roberson, a minor, alleged that Franklin Mills distributed 25,000 images of her likeness on lithographic prints, photographs, and bags of flour without her knowledge or consent. The images were displayed publicly in stores, saloons, and other public places.

Roberson brought suit and claimed that she had suffered $15,000 in damages. Roberson claimed that she suffered great humiliation from the scoffs and jeers of people who recognized her from the images. She claimed that she suffered great physical and emotional distress and that she suffered a severe nervous shock and was confined to bed. She sought damages and an injunction against further distribution of her image by Franklin Mills.

The trial court ruled for Roberson, finding that she had a cause of action for invasion of her right of privacy. The decision was affirmed on appeal to the appellate division and Franklin Mills appealed.

Issue: Is there a cause of action for invasion of the right of privacy?

Holding and Rule (Parker): No. There is no cause of action for invasion of privacy.

There is no precedent for a right to privacy. Such a right cannot be found in Blackstone, Kent, or any other of the great commentators upon the law and its existence was never asserted prior to 1890.

Public Policy: Such a cause of action would result in a vast amount of litigation because the right of privacy, once established as a legal doctrine, cannot be confined to the publication of a likeness but must necessarily extend to comments upon one’s looks, conduct, domestic relations or habits. It would necessarily be held to include the same things if spoken instead of printed because both would invade the right to be absolutely let alone.

Section 245 of the Penal Code states that a libel is any malicious publication by picture, effigy, or sign which exposes a person to contempt, ridicule, or obloquy. Malicious in this definition means simply intentional and willful. But there is no allegation of libel in this complaint.

Disposition: Reversed.

Dissent (Gray): The existence of an enforceable right to privacy is a proposition which is not opposed by any decision in this court and which is within the field of accepted legal principles.

Roberson’s complaint is not fanciful and her alleged injury is not purely sentimental. The conspicuous public display of her likeness has so humiliated her by the notoriety and by the public comments it has provoked as to cause her mental and physical distress and suffering.

The right of privacy, or the right of the individual to be let alone, is a personal right which is not without judicial recognition. It is the complement of the right to the immunity of one’s person. The individual has always been entitled to be protected in the exclusive use and enjoyment of that which is his own. The common law regarded his person and property as inviolate, and he has the absolute right to be let alone. It is a fundamental principle that everyone, in exercising a personal right and in the use of his property, shall respect the rights and properties of others.

When there is an alleged invasion of some personal right, or privilege, the absence of exact precedent and the fact that early commentators upon the common law have no discussion upon the subject are of no material importance in awarding equitable relief.

Roberson has a property right to protection against the use of her image for commercial purposes, just as she would have if they were publishing her literary compositions. The right to grant the injunction does not depend upon the existence of property held in some contractual form. It depends upon the existence of property in any right which belongs to a person. It would be an extraordinary view to concede the right of a person to be protected against the unauthorized circulation of an unpublished lecture, letter, or drawing, yet deny the same protection to a person whose portrait was obtained without authorization and used for commercial purposes.

The judgment appealed from should be affirmed.

Lawrence v. Texas


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