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MESSENGER v. GRUNER JAHR USA PUBL.

February 23, 1998

JAMIE MESSENGER, an infant under the age of eighteen, by her mother and "next friend" DONNA MESSENGER, Plaintiff, against GRUNER JAHR USA PUBLISHING, et ano., Defendants.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: KAPLAN

 LEWIS A. KAPLAN, District Judge.

 Jamie Messenger is a Florida teenager and aspiring fashion model who posed for photographs for use in one of defendant's magazines, YM, Young and Modern. The photographs were used to illustrate a love and sexual advice column that is a regular feature of the magazine. The column in question contained what was presented as a letter from a teenager, identified only as "Mortified," which sought advice in consequence of her having had sex with three boys and then having been ostracized by her peers. The purported letter was followed by the editor's advice to "Mortified." The column was illustrated with three photographs of Messenger in various stages of undress and in poses suggestive of events related in the purported letter. The page prominently featured a headline, or "pull quote," that read "I got trashed and had sex with three guys." The gravamen of the case is plaintiff's contention that the defendants falsely created the impression that Jamie Messenger was the author of the letter and had had sex with three guys. Plaintiff complains also that defendants tricked Messenger as to the use that would be made of the photographs for which she posed and that the purported letter in fact is a work of fiction.

 Plaintiff's remaining claim *fn1" is that the use of her photograph violated Sections 50 and 51 of the New York Civil Rights Law, which forbids the use of one's name, portrait or picture for trade or advertising purposes absent a signed release and creates a private cause of action for damages for violations. In order to place the defendants' summary judgment motion in perspective, it is useful to trace the history of the statute.

 In Roberson v. Rochester Folding Box Co.,2 the New York Court of Appeals broadly declared that there is no common law right of privacy in the State of New York and denied recovery to an infant plaintiff whose photograph had been widely distributed by the defendant in order to advertise its baking flour. The Legislature promptly adopted the statute here in question to overturn the holding of Roberson by creating a cause of action for the commercial or trade use of one's name or picture without one's consent. *fn3"

 The state courts' subsequent application of the statute has been sensitive to the risk that too broad a construction could interfere with free and open discussion of matters of public concern. *fn4" They have held that publications concerning matters of public interest -- a concept applied most expansively *fn5" -- are not trade or advertising uses. More specifically, the state courts repeatedly have said that the use of a photograph to illustrate an article on a topic of public interest is not actionable "unless [the photograph] has no real relationship to the article . . . or unless the article is an advertisement in disguise." *fn6" Indeed, as recently as 1990, the New York Court of Appeals held in Finger v. Omni Publications Int'l, Ltd.,7 that the use of a photograph of a large family to illustrate a story on fertility and new fertilization techniques was not actionable despite the fact that the children in the photograph were not conceived by such methods.

 On the other hand, the New York courts have not disregarded the interests of persons victimized by falsehood. In the leading case of Spahn v. Julian Messner, Inc.,8 the New York Court of Appeals held that a star professional athlete would be entitled to recover for the use of his name in an unauthorized biography to the extent that the defendant culpably falsified or fictionalized aspects of his life. More recently, the Appellate Term of the New York Supreme Court in Fils-Aime v. Enlightenment Press, Inc.,9 applied the Spahn rule to affirm the denial of a motion for summary judgment dismissing a claim based on the allegedly misleading use of a photograph to illustrate an article on a topic of conceded public interest - the use of a teenager's photograph, taken for other purposes, with an article on child pornography in circumstances that arguably implied that the teenager had been involved in such activities.

 These somewhat divergent lines of authority frame the dispute now before the Court. Defendants argue that teenage sex is a matter of public interest and that Messenger's photographs -- which, they contend, would have been understood by readers to be photographs of a model rather than of the author of the purported letter from "Mortified" -- were reasonably related to their column. Their position therefore is that their actions are protected by the newsworthiness privilege because there was no falsification and, in any case, because Spahn and Fils-Aime no longer reflect the law of New York. The latter contention rests on the fact that Finger and other cases have summarized the newsworthiness exception to Sections 50 and 51 without referring to any limitation based on falsification. Plaintiff, on the other hand, contends that the article in question would have been understood by the relevant audience -- allegedly teenagers -- as implying that Messenger was "Mortified" and that such false and misleading suggestions are actionable, assuming the requisite culpability is established, in view of Spahn and its progeny.

 One matter is readily disposed of. Plaintiff does not, and in any case could not, seriously dispute that the subject of the column at issue -- teenage sex and its consequences -- falls within the broad reach of the newsworthiness exception to the statute. *fn10" Nor does she deny that the use of photographs of a teenager of suitable age and gender is appropriate to illustrate such a column provided that the individual so depicted in fact had the experiences described or, if not, that the photograph is presented with a disclaimer or other clear indication that the individual is a model and not personally the subject of the column. Hence, this Court holds that the subject of the column was a matter of public interest and that the use of the photographs was reasonably related to it. Defendants' motion therefore turns on whether the column was false or fictionalized -- that is, whether it implied that "Mortified's" purported letter described Messenger's personal experiences -- and, if so, whether defendants are correct in arguing that the fictionalization exception to the newsworthiness privilege does not survive in New York law.

 The first question is not troublesome. The fundamental issue is whether the publication created the impression that Messenger had had the experiences that were the subject of the column, a matter than turns on the interpretation that would be given to the column by readers. The problem is analogous to that presented in libel cases where the question is whether the accused publication is defamatory, and the mode of analysis is the same. The Court initially must determine as a matter of law whether readers reasonably could construe the article in the manner alleged by the plaintiff. If they could, the issue whether they actually did so is for the trier of fact. *fn11" Although the defendants have pointed out several substantial indications that arguably would lead a reader to conclude that the photographs of Messenger were those of a model and not in fact of "Mortified," the purported author of the letter, *fn12" the Court is not prepared on this record to say that this was the only reasonable conclusion.

 The question whether the claim nevertheless should be dismissed because New York has abandoned the fictionalization limitation on the newsworthiness privilege is only modestly more difficult. Certainly New York courts have dismissed claims at least superficially similar to, if not as lurid as, plaintiff's. In Arrington, the Court of Appeals rejected a claim by a man who complained of the unauthorized use of his photograph to illustrate an article concerning the black middle class despite the fact that plaintiff allegedly did not share traits of those discussed in the article. *fn13" And, as noted above, it similarly disposed in Finger of a claim based on the use of a photograph of plaintiffs' family to illustrate an article on fertility treatments notwithstanding the fact that the children thus depicted had not been conceived by such methods. *fn14"

 Defendants argue that Finger and Arrington therefore should be taken as overruling the fictionalization rule of Spahn, at least with regard to the use of genuine photographs reasonably related to articles concerning matters of public interest. Plaintiff, for her part, points to the fact that the New York courts never explicitly have overruled Spahn and its progeny. Moreover, she would distinguish the cases upon which defendants rely on the basis that none involved the use of photographs allegedly procured by deception as to their intended use.

 Although it is far from clear, defendants may be correct in suggesting that there is some tension in the New York case law on this point. Spahn and Fils-Aime reflect the view that the free speech concerns that warrant broad latitude in permitting newsworthy publications free of Section 50-51 exposure are not implicated with respect to falsehoods if the publisher acts with the. requisite degree of culpability. The Finger-Arrington line of cases, on the other hand, might be read as cutting in the other direction because there arguably was an element of falsity in the use of the plaintiffs' pictures in those cases. Moreover, plaintiff's proposed distinction of them -- which depends not on the impression created by the use of the photograph in juxtaposition with the article, but on the means used to obtain the photograph -- is not persuasive. If an individual's photograph has an appropriate relationship to an article concerning a matter of public interest and its use to illustrate that article does not create a false or misleading impression, the free speech concerns that gave rise to the newsworthiness exception to Sections 50 and 51 are implicated irrespective of whether the individual's photograph was obtained by inappropriate means. In other words, the individual conceivably might have an action for fraud, but does not have a claim under the Civil Rights Law. Per contra, if the use of the photograph culpably creates a false and misleading impression, no free speech concerns should preclude a claim under the Civil Rights Law even if no improper means were used to obtain the photograph. But while there perhaps is room for debate as to the status of New York law on this point, this Court does not write on a clean slate.

 The Second Circuit in Lerman v. Flynt Distributing Co.15 construed New York law as holding that the newsworthiness privilege under Sections 50 and 51 is defeated if the use of the plaintiff's name or photograph is "infected with material and substantial falsity" provided the defendant acted with the requisite degree of fault regarding the variance from the truth. *fn16" As Lerman post-dates all of the cases relied ...


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