The Ghost of Public Records
By Alex Noble
Let’s face it – we’ve all done things we’re not proud of. But what happens when your past follows you everywhere, because it is a matter of public record? That’s what’s happening to Yasmin Rahman, a 27 year-old New Yorker who says that as a consequence of trying to commit suicide 12 years ago, today she can’t land a job.
Yasmin Rahman was 15 years old when she tried to kill herself by jumping from a crowded subway platform in front of an oncoming train. The NYPD saved her life that day – they rescued her from the tracks and she spent six months recovering in the hospital. She learned to cope with her mental health issues, finished high school, enrolled in and completed college — and says that 39 employers have refused to hire her because they found detailed reports of her suicide attempt when they searched her name in the public records.
If you ask Ms. Rahman, this is unfair. And since she can’t erase the past, she has settled on the next best thing – filing a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the NYPD for releasing her information to the public in the first place. Yes, this is the very same department whose officers saved her life. And yes, Ms. Rahman is suing for invasion of privacy though she tried to kill herself in one of the most public ways imaginable.
But before you gather a posse with torches and pitchforks, remember that Ms. Rahman was a minor at the time, and that a person’s mental illness is a personal and very confidential matter.
Unfortunately for Ms. Rahman, plaintiffs face an uphill battle when they sue for invasion of privacy in New York. While some states have provisions for a legal claim of “public disclosure of private facts,” New York does not. New York courts don’t recognize a general right to privacy, so in order to prevail, plaintiffs must show that their privacy rights under state statutes were violated. If Rahman sues under New York’s right to privacy statute, she has to produce evidence that the police officers who made the public record of her suicide attempt did so for a commercial purpose, which is not at all likely. There are only a few exceptions to this requirement, and none of them apply in Ms. Rahman’s case. Her other option is to sue under New York’s public records laws, which tend to strongly favor open access to public records and do not allow plaintiffs to sue for money damages.
Going forward with either option will require Ms. Rahman to clear a hurdle known as the “newsworthiness exception,” which blocks invasion of privacy lawsuits when the information relates to a newsworthy event or a matter of public concern. Teen suicide is, we’ll all agree, a serious topic and a person’s mental health should generally be a private matter. But Ms. Rahman didn’t try to kill herself privately; she turned her suicide attempt into a newsworthy event by jumping in front of a train at a crowded subway stop and nearly shutting down a mass-transit system.
If past cases are any guide, Ms. Rahman’s lawsuit will not succeed because of the newsworthiness exception. A New York court rejected a similar claim in 1983, when a mental patient sued CBS for broadcasting footage of him in a psychiatric institution without his permission. Even though CBS revealed private details about his mental health, the newsworthiness exception blocked his lawsuit because the footage was part of a larger news story about treatment of psychiatric patients. Contrast that with other New York cases where plaintiffs have won money damages from the government for publicly revealing that they were HIV-positive with no connection to a newsworthy event.
If Yasmin Rahman had attempted to commit suicide privately, this would be a closer question. But under New York law as she is wrote, Ms. Rahman’s claim is bound to fail.