Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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Closed Contracts Expression
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Under Hungarian law, websites can be held liable for any defamatory comments posted by users, even when the editors were unaware of such comments or have agreed to remove them when notified of their content.
The case originated when a real estate agency pressed charges against a website for allowing the publication of defamatory comments. Following two rulings by lower-level courts, the case was brought to the Hungarian Supreme Court (Kuria) for review. The Kuria held that the website was indeed responsible for allowing the publication of comments that violated the rights and reputation of others.
The Association of Hungarian Content Providers (Association) subsequently appealed to the Constitutional Court. The Association argued that the judgment amounted to a violation of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, which can only be restricted in limited cases. The website did not moderate comments prior to publication, so users were themselves responsible for respecting the law while engaging in debates through the online platform. The Constitutional Court was thus called to determine the compatibility of the ruling by the Kuria with Hungary’s Fundamental Law, whose Article IX protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
The Constitutional Court dismissed the complaint by the Association of Hungarian Content Providers. In its reasoning, the Court stated that the Internet is an increasingly important space for exchanging opinions and cannot be exempted from abiding by the law. Websites can be considered responsible for the comments of their users, even when the editors are not aware of their publication or when they agree to remove them as soon as infractions are detected. Freedom of expression, in this case, must be balanced against the protection of the reputation of others.
The judgment was widely criticized by Hungarian media and international observers, with people arguing that websites may now feel compelled to limit online discussions in order to avoid being charged with defamation. According to the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, this would have a significant, negative impact on freedom of expression in Hungary.
In a separate concurring opinion, Judge Péter Paczolay, President of the Court, discussed how the decision could lead to restrictions on the freedom of speech, depending on how it was applied by Hungarian courts. Judge István Stumpf opposed the majority ruling and presented a dissenting opinion. In his view, an alternative system, based on the principle of “notice and takedown,” should be employed when defamatory comments appear on websites. Such an approach represents a more proportionate interference with the right to freedom of expression and has already been successfully implemented in other countries.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This decision could have a significant, chilling effect for online media in Hungary. Holding websites liable for its readers’ unlawful comments could greatly limit websites’ ability to maintain spaces for free and open discussion online.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.