Water cooler and triangular chairs

Should Demi Moore's emergency call have been kept private?

30 January 2012. Published by Keith Mathieson, Partner

When the actress Demi Moore needed emergency medical care at her home in Los Angeles last week, her friend called 911.

A partially redacted recording of the call was later released by state officials, prompting media reports around the world.  The New York Post reported that Demi Moore was having convulsions after smoking something (the "something" had been redacted from the tape of the call released to the public).  The tape was actually reproduced on news websites such as CBS News.

Emergency calls are not generally released to the public in the UK.  In the United States the practice is apparently more common.  According to Professor Daniel Solove of George Washington University Law School "... generally, most states consider emergency calls public records available on request, with exceptions sometimes made for privacy reasons or to protect a police investigation".  Solove nonetheless believes that releasing 911 calls to the public violates the constitutional right to information privacy.  He discusses the Demi Moore case here.

The recording of the 911 call in Demi Moore's case revealed (even in its redacted form) information about her medical condition at the time - that was information any UK court would consider private.  The UK approach to the lawfulness of such a disclosure would depend on whether there was a sufficient public interest in the disclosure and/or the extent to which the information was already in the public domain.  As a matter of general observation, it seems unlikely that a UK court would in ordinary circumstances approve the release or publication of medical information disclosed in the course of an emergency call.  In the well-known case of Peck v United Kingdom the European Court of Human Rights held that a local council had violated Article 8 by releasing CCTV footage of a man moments after he had attempted to kill himself in a public street.  The parallels with 999 calls are obvious.