Every week, Student Press Law Center attorneys answer a frequently asked question about student media law in “Ask SPLC.”
Q: Recently, we had a student at our school test positive for COVID-19. He lived in an on-campus dorm and rumors are starting to fly, many of them inaccurate. He has not gone public, but we have confirmed the information. Can we publish his name? If not, what can we publish?
A: This is an important question that many news organizations have started to ask. Publicly disclosing private and embarrassing facts about an individual can lead to an invasion of privacy claim. Revealing private and sensitive medical information about someone — without that person’s consent — generally falls into that category and should be avoided. That said, the primary defense to an invasion of privacy claim is newsworthiness and certainly a strong argument can be made at this time that alerting individuals that they may have been exposed to a potentially lethal disease is not only newsworthy but also essential to prevent further spread and to quash rumors and disinformation.
The first thing I’d do is approach the student and ask if he’s willing to talk. There is nothing shameful about being one of the growing number of individuals to contract the disease and now is the time to be like Tom Hanks (who announced his positive status to the world), instead of like Rand Paul (the U.S. Senator from Kentucky who continued going about his normal business, interacting and possibly infecting others, after being tested but before the results showed him to be positive for COVID-19).
If the student consents, you’re safe to publish his name. If he doesn’t consent, I’d be reluctant to identify him unless there is some other editorial justification for doing so. For example, if the student held a position of particular significance (for example, he was a player on the school basketball team who might have spread it to those he played with) or if there was some other unique angle to the story that editorially justified publishing his name it would be worth further discussion, including talking it over with legal counsel.
Even if you don’t publish his name, you can safely publish the name of the dorm and other details about the case as long as they don’t lead to the student’s identity (or accidentally point to someone else.) You cannot be successfully sued for public disclosure invasion of privacy by someone if you’ve not identified them.
See SPLC’s Coronavirus Toolkit for additional resources like a letter affirming student media is an “essential service,” what to do if your program is under threat because of the outbreak, FAQs about transitioning your student newsroom to remote work and more.
Legal questions should be directed toward SPLC’s legal hotline. Ask SPLC questions will be selected based on trends in the legal hotline. The legal hotline is confidential and no identifying information will be used in the Ask SPLC segment.