Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Expands Expression
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There is a Spanish language version of this case available. View Spanish version
A local newspaper published a letter in its “Letters to the Editor” section that accused a public official of questionable administrative conduct. According to the letter, as a result of that conduct he could not be nominated to be a member of a local Court. The official discussed in the letter sued the newspaper and the person who had written the letter, because he felt that it had harmed his honor and reputation. The trial judge dismissed his complaint; the Court of Appeals then upheld this judgment. The Supreme Court heard an extraordinary appeal and upheld the original ruling and dismissed the complaint.
The local newspaper Norte, in the Chaco province, published a letter from a reader claiming that a former official’s administrative conduct had been questionable when he had served as Vice President and President of the Social Security Institute (Instituto de Previsión Social). The letter further stated that as a result of such behavior, the official could not be nominated for the Provincial Court of Auditors. The former official filed a civil complaint against the newspaper and the person who wrote the letter, as well as against a member of the Court of Auditors who had made a series of statements similar to those published by the newspaper when he had answered an information request from the chairman of a political party.
The trial judge dismissed the complaint. The Court that reviewed the case on appeal decided to uphold the judgment. The Supreme Court then heard an extraordinary appeal, where it refused to entertain the complaint against the member of the Court of Auditors and, with respect to the other claims, upheld the original ruling and dismissed the suit.
The Court had to decide whether a media outlet can be held civilly liable for publishing a letter from a reader that makes allegations about misdeeds or questionable conduct by a public official. It also had to decide whether the author of the letter should be held liable for the statements therein.
The Court’s first consideration concerned the liability of the author of the letter. In this regard, it stated that “in the case of information relating to public officials (as in the case at hand), public figures, or individuals who are involved in such matters, if the published piece contains false or inaccurate information, those who consider that they have been harmed must demonstrate that the person who uttered the speech or made the accusation was aware of the falsity of the information and acted with the knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth thereof” [p. 24]. The Court noted that the plaintiff had not shown that the author had been aware of the falsity of the information in the letter nor that she had acted with total disregard for the truth of the statements. Therefore, it dismissed the appeal and upheld the judgment acquitting the defendant.
Regarding the complaint against the newspaper and its editor, the Court referred to the judgment “New York Times v. Sullivan” handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court, in order to explain the difference between the protection of freedom of expression for public officials and for private individuals. Respect this, the Court stated that when it comes to complaints against officials, it is necessary to show that the journalists or the editor of the newspaper, knew the falsity of the information published or had an open disregard for the truth of the information.
Only then, the medium should compensate those involved.
The Court explained that this is the case because requiring that the media outlet identify the full “truth of the facts” prior to publishing an article of public interest would be extremely difficult. Imposing this condition could lead to self- censorship of relevant information, out of fear of not being able to prove the full truth thereof. According to the Court, this judgment “is in line with judgments handed down by numerous courts with constitutional jurisdiction, to the effect that freedom of expression includes not only the protection of ‘true’ statements, but also extends to statements that, although not describing reality, were made in a manner that does not sufficiently merit a rebuke” [p. 4].
In this regard, the disputed letter referred to the plaintiff’s performance as a public official, “whose honor merits a lower level of protection than that due to ordinary private citizens” [p.6]. According to the Court, in accordance with the foregoing, the plaintiff “should have attempted to prove more than the ‘negligence’ [simple culpa] on which he has based his claim” [p. 6].
Furthermore, the Court explained that according to its case law (known as the “Capillay” doctrine), the media may never be held liable in any kind of proceeding for the “reproduction of statements by others.” It said that if the source making the claim is properly cited and a “substantially true” transcript of the statement is presented, the conduct will not be “unlawful” [p.8]. In this regard, it said that the media does not have the additional responsibility to verify the accuracy of “statements by others” that they reproduce, provided that the above requirement is met. According to the Court, the primary justification for this case law “is that in matters of public importance it seems to be a priority that all voices be heard, so that the debates that are part of a democratic system can grow and be strengthened. If journalists could be held liable for the mere fact of reproducing speech by another party, which allegedly harms third parties, it is clear that they would become a fearful filterer and evaluator of information rather than an unrestricted channel for information. This would restrict the information received by people and, at the same time, would place journalists in the improper role of censor.” [p.8].
However, the defendant also argued that the media outlet not only published the letter, but also gave it a “clearly disparaging” title through which it supported the statements in the letter. In this regard, the Court explained that it is clear that in all newspapers letters are given titles according to their content. Therefore, establishing the title for a letter cannot imply that the media outlet participated in the authorship thereof or that it is responsible for the title reflecting the content thereof.
In the case in question, the Court decided to affirm the original judgment and dismiss the civil complaint.
With respect to the appeal against the judgment acquitting the member of the Court of Auditors, it decided not to entertain the extraordinary appeal because it considered that the statements made by the official complied with the law and the report he produced did not contain any specific accusation against the plaintiff.
Judges Ricardo Luis Lorenzetti, Elena I. Highton de Nolasco, Carlos S. Fayt, Enrique Santiago Petracchi, and Juan Carlos Maqueda joined the judgment’s main arguments. In addition, Judge Lorenzetti commented that “the principle of actual malice, unlike the truth test, does not depend on the objective truth or falsity of the speech. This principle comes into play when it has already been accepted that it has not been possible to prove the truth of the statements, which are inaccurate or even false. If actual malice is the issue, what needs to be discussed and proven is the knowledge that the journalist or news outlet had (or should have had) of that falsity or possible falsity. […] The second, and no less important issue, is that the specific content of the subjective factor referred to by the concept of actual malice – knowledge of the falsity or negligent indifference regarding the possible falsity – may not be presumed, but rather must be proven by the individual filing a complaint against the journalist or news outlet” [p. 13, 14].
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The judgment follows the standards established previously by the Supreme Court of Argentina with regard to the publication of false or inaccurate information by the media. It reiterates Supreme Court case law establishing that media outlets may only be convicted if it is proven that they were aware of the falsity before publication. Internationally, the judgment follows the standards set out in the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and reiterates the conclusions of the Court’s earlier decisions, which state that media outlets may only be convicted on civil charges for publication of false or inaccurate information of public interest if real or actual malice is proven. The judgment also expressly recognizes the “fair reporting” doctrine set out in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights case of Herrera Ulloa v. Costa Rica.
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.
The Supreme Court of Justice is the highest court in Argentina and its decisions are binding.
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