Content Regulation / Censorship, Political Expression
Zhang v. Baidu.com, Inc.
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In this case, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”) unanimously upheld the majority decision of the chamber in June 12, 2014. The ECtHR held that French courts had violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”) by interfering with a magazine’s right to freedom of expression with respect to the publication of an article on the unrecognized child of the Prince of Monaco. The court held that the existence of an illegitimate child in the context of a monarchy is undeniably in the public interest and that French courts had failed to properly balance the Prince’s privacy interests with the privacy and freedom of expression right of his son and of his son’s mother.
In 2005, the French magazine Paris-Match published an article in which a woman – identified as “Ms. C” – claimed that Albert Grimaldi, reigning Prince of Monaco, was the father of her son. An article had already appeared in the Daily Mail anticipating the content of the Paris-Match article, and following the publication of the Daily Mail article, Prince Albert served a notice on Paris-Match in order to prevent the feature from being published.
Paris-Match did not comply with the notice, and Prince Albert brought proceedings against it with the Tribunal de Grande Instance of Nanterre for violation of his right to privacy. The Tribunal ordered Paris-Match to compensate Prince Albert with €50,000 and to publish the details of the judgment on its cover. The Court of Appeal subsequently confirmed the amount to be paid in compensation but changed the conditions for the publication of the judgment. Meanwhile, Prince Albert had issued a statement confirming that he was the father of the child in question.
On June 12, 2014, the majority of the ECtHR ruled that the judgments against the Paris-Match amounted to an unjustified interference with its right to freedom of expression as protected by Article 10 of the ECHR. It was held that the earlier judgments had not sufficiently distinguished between Prince Albert’s personal life and the public issues related to it. The Court found that the child’s birth was of great interest to the citizens of Monaco and that the child’s mother, Ms. C, had spoken publicly about her son in order to have his rights and identity recognized. Further, the article was neither false nor defamatory and the existence of the child had already been revealed in the Daily Mail prior to the article appearing in Paris-Match.
The June 2014 judgment, however, did not become final. At the French Government’s request, the case was referred to the Grand Chamber with third party comments from the Government of Monaco, and a non-governmental organization, the Media Legal Defense Initiative, was given leave by the President of the Grand Chamber to intervene to take part in the proceedings.
The applicant argued that the right to respect for private life ought to be upheld, but it was not absolute, particularly when it clashed with the right to freedom of expression and information. They argued that the domestic courts failed to balance the Prince’s rights against the rights of the mother, the child’s right to be officially recognized, and the right of the magazine to impart information of public interest, which was not confidential at the date of publication.
The Government argued that personal or family relations, love lives, pregnancy, illness, surgical operations, religious convictions, home, and the right to control one’s image is considered to fall within the scope of private life, and only information relevant to the public’s right to be informed could be disclosed. It was argued that, even if the Court was to find that the birth of an illegitimate child was a matter of public concern, the fact that the complained of article contained other intimate details of his life justified the protection of privacy and took precedence over freedom of expression.
The ECtHR, led by President Dean Spielmann, delivered a unanimous judgment. The Court noted that, whilst the notion of private life was a broad concept, it did not have an exhaustive definition. Private individuals may claim protection for their private life, but the same is not true of public figures. Only in certain circumstances may a public figure rely on a “legitimate expectation” of protection of and respect for his or her private life. It was also noted that Freedom of expression was one of the essential foundations of a democratic society and applied to both information that is favorably received and that which may offend, shock or disturb. However, freedom of expression is also subject to exceptions, which are strictly construed. Most relevantly here, the press has a duty to impart information and ideas on all matters in the public interest in a manner that is consistent with its obligations and responsibilities.
The Court held that the public interest related to matters which the public legitimately take an interest in, which attract its attention, or which concern it to a significant degree, particularly if it affects the well-being of citizens or the community. However, matters capable of giving rise to considerable controversy, or concerning an important social issue, or involving a problem about which the public would want to be informed also fall within the public interest. It was held that, in this case, there was no doubt, considering the entire context, that the publication concerned a matter of public interest. The Court stated that there was an undeniable public-interest value for the citizens of Monaco in the existence of a child of the Prince who, at the time, was known as being single and childless. This information, it was held, could arouse the interest of the public with regard to the rules of succession and the attitude of the Prince, who wanted his paternity to be kept secret in a hereditary monarchy.
The Court held that the Prince’s private life was not the only subject of the article, but also concerned the private life of his son’s mother and her son. The article detailed her pregnancy and her feelings, and details of her and her son’s life together. The Court held that she was not bound to silence and the article was a legitimate means of expression for both Ms. C and her son. It was also held that, because Ms. C’s motivation in granting the interview was to gain official recognition for her son, the interview raised a question of public interest. Thus, the elements relating to Ms. C’s private life also had to be taken into account in assessing the privacy protections due to the prince. In addition, to ensure a fair balancing of the interests at stake, it was held that the domestic courts, should have taken into account the potential impact of the Prince’s status as Head of State, and attempted, in that context, to determine the parts of the article belonging strictly in the private domain and the parts that fell within the public sphere.
In conclusion, the Court held that whilst the arguments advanced by the Government with regard to the protection of the Prince’s private life and the right to his own image were relevant, they could not be considered sufficient to justify interference with the magazines rights in this case. The Court held that France’s domestic courts had not given due consideration to the principles and criteria laid down by the Court’s caselaw for balancing the right to respect for private life and the right to freedom of expression. Therefore, they exceeded the margin of appreciation generally afforded to the contracting states to uphold certain restrictions and “failed to strike a reasonable balance of proportionality between the measures restricting the applicants’ right to freedom of expression, imposed by them, and the legitimate aim pursued.” Accordingly, the Court concluded that there had been a violation of Article 10 of the ECHR.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The ECtHR’s judgment upheld the principle that the right to privacy of public figures can be limited when information regarding their personal lives is of general interest to the public.
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