Dillard v. City of Springdale, Arkansas
The Eighth Circuit held that officials of the City of Springdale, Arkansas, were not entitled to either qualified or statutory immunity after they made decisions to release information identifying victims of childhood sexual abuse to the press. In 2006, members of the Duggar family, stars of a popular reality show, were interviewed as part of a police investigation into sexual misconduct by one of the other members of the family. The victims were under the age of 16 at the time of the misconduct and the police promised the family that their statements would remain confidential. In 2015, a tabloid submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the city and the county and the city released information, at the direction of the police chief and the city attorney. Though the victim’s names were redacted, other identifying information was not, such as the parent’s names and ages and addresses of the victims.
The victims brought suit in federal court alleging a violation of constitutional rights and invasion of privacy. The city and city officials argued, in district court, that FOIA required them to release the reports in the time and manner in which they were released and sought the protection of qualified immunity for the constitutional claims and statutory immunity for the tort claims. The district court denied the city and the city officials’ motion and the case was appealed to the Eighth Circuit. The court held that government officials were entitled to protection from liability for innocuous disclosures but there were limits on disclosure in the appropriate circumstances. The court held that being identified as a minor victim of sexual abuse was significantly more intrusive than other potential releases of information. Additionally, the court held that the police promised privacy and state law supported an expectation of privacy and that the release was clearly unlawful. The court held that qualified immunity protects officials who make bad guesses in gray areas but does not protect plain incompetence.